Better Pheasant Habitat

Good Management Practices

Create habitat diversity

The ring-necked pheasant range in Missouri lies north of the Missouri River and includes most of the two northern tiers of counties bordering Iowa. In addition, a small population is found in the Bootheel. The capacity for pheasants to reach and/or maintain huntable populations depends upon the quality and quantity of the habitat. Pheasants do best where agricultural practices include grain crops, hay and grassland in a diversified pattern. The keys to suitable pheasant habitat are undisturbed nesting cover from May through July, good brood habitat in the summer, well distributed protective cover in winter, and an ample food source near both of the above cover types. All of these life requirements should be present within 100 acres or less, the average home range of a pheasant.

Food Habits

Pheasants are essentially seed-eaters, and cultivated crops make up the bulk of their diet. Due to the widespread availability of waste grain, food is generally not a limiting factor. Food requirements should be considered, therefore, when attempting to improve or manage pheasant habitat. The following seasonal food preferences are the results of a Missouri food habits study.

  • Spring (March-May): Corn and sunflower are the dominant foods as crop residue and succulent shoots. Water smartweed is used in March, bur-cucumber (Sicyos angulatus) in April, and green leaf material in May.
  • Summer (June-August): Corn, wheat, giant and yellow foxtail, Japanese millet and wild cherry are taken in late summer. Snout beetles, grasshoppers, leaf beetles, worms and snails are important animal foods.
  • Fall (September-November): Corn, soybeans, wheat and grain sorghum comprise over half the fall pheasant diet. Other foods include giant ragweed, giant foxtail, annual sunflower, grasshoppers and ground beetles.
  • Winter (December-February): The principal winter food is corn. Some native plants, particularly sunflower, bur-cucumber, ragweed, foxtail and false buckwheat are also used. Other important crop residues include wheat, barley, oats, rye and soybeans.
  • Year-long: The top five cultivated foods (in order of importance) are corn, soybeans, wheat, grain sorghum and oats. High priority native foods are sunflower, giant foxtail, bur-cucumber, false buckwheat and yellow foxtail. Usually, less than 15 percent of the diet will consist of fruits such as grape, sumac, coralberry, rose hips, poison ivy and bittersweet. Insects make up from 10 to 20 percent of the diet.

To maintain good habitat, food studies show that 50 percent of the land should be in row crops such as corn and soybeans. However, non-agricultural areas, set-aside acres, wetlands, roadsides and weedy draws become important as alternate feeding sites where agricultural lands are extensively fall plowed. 

Nesting Cover

One of the most critical components of pheasant habitat is suitable, undisturbed nesting cover. Preferred nesting cover consists of dense, leafy-stemmed, erect herbaceous vegetation with an overhead canopy. Residual vegetation 12 inches in height and taller is excellent for nesting. Primary nesting areas in Missouri include grass and legume hayfields, roadsides, wetlands, weedy draws and native grass pastures.

Alfalfa and alfalfa/smooth brome hayfields are heavily used for nesting. Unfortunately, these fields often turn into death-traps since mowing normally occurs during the time the hen is incubating the eggs. The average egg-laying period for pheasants in Missouri begins in late April and early May. The peak hatch occurs the first week of June. During a normal year, farmers cut alfalfa and other hay during the first two weeks of June. Hens are often killed on the nest during hay mowing. Hens that escape the mower have a low likelihood of a successful renest, since the second mowing may also interfere.

Nesting cover should be undisturbed from mid-May to August to maintain or enhance pheasant production in Missouri. Land managers interested in pheasant production should consider the establishment of permanent nesting areas on the farm.

Management Recommendation by Habitat Type

Hayfields

The first cutting of existing alfalfa-brome grass hayfields should be completed before the 20th of May. Second cuttings or seed harvest should be delayed until after the first of August to ensure the highest possible hatching success rates.

Clover should be grown for seed rather than hay. For best seed production, red clover should be clipped to a height of 6 to 8 inches about the fifth of May. After this clipping, the red clover should be allowed to set seed and mature until the end of September. This time period is sufficient for pheasant hens to establish nests and successfully bring off broods. Mowing should be avoided on wildlife areas where cool-season grasses are to become permanent nesting cover. When circumstances dictate disturbances to enhance optimum cover density (every 3 to 5 years), spring burning should be completed before April 15. If mechanical clipping or pasturing are selected techniques, these activities should start after Aug. 1.

Warm-season grasses should receive top priority when establishing permanent nesting cover. Recent studies in southern Iowa revealed that pheasant nesting densities in switchgrass and mixed native grass exceeded densities in traditionally preferred alfalfa-orchard grass. Pheasant nesting success was greatest in switchgrass. Switchgrass is especially important as nesting cover since stems from the previous year remain erect throughout the winter and provide residual nesting cover the following spring.

Several factors need to be considered when planting warm-season grasses for pheasants: A field size of greater than 10 acres is recommended (studies show lower nest densities in smaller fields); plantings should be within 1/4 mile of available food and within a ½ mile of roosting cover. Refer to warm season grass planting guides for detail on methods of seeding and management.

Strip Cover

Roadsides, ditches, and levees are well known for their pheasant nesting potential. Suggested management of these areas is to mow only once every two to three years, after Aug. 1. Spot herbicide treatment is encouraged over clipping for noxious weed control. Switchgrass is recommended when establishing vegetation in these areas. "Matting" species such as crown vetch and birds' foot trefoil should be avoided.

Fence rows, field borders, and stream banks are often composed of herbaceous and woody cover that pheasants can use to nest. These areas are also prime targets for farmers who are looking for more cropland. The main management practice, over and above retaining these habitat types, is to maintain adequate width, species diversity, and cover density. These areas may be improved by excluding cattle and controlling shrubby invasion.

Wetlands

The emergent vegetation zones of wetlands are important nesting cover where this habitat type occurs in the pheasant range. Secondary succession on drained sites will afford nesting cover only if the area dries out by early May. Mixes sedges and aster-goldenrod communities are more attractive for nesting than monotypic sedge and cattail cover. The use of wetland cover for nesting is determined by the amount and quality of residual cover present in the spring. Vegetation resistant to flattening and providing semi-upright clumps are often chosen as nesting sites in wetlands.

The most important management needed is to retain the wetland areas. Steps to reduce or eliminate frequent burning and/or draining are necessary.

Winter Cover

Winter cover is the second most vital habitat component for pheasant survival. Effective winter cover should stop snow drift, reduce wind chill, and provide protection from predators. It is very important to provide adequate winter cover within one-half mile of an available food source such as standing grains or unplowed stubbles.

Agricultural Land

Cultivated fields occupy most of the area within the primary pheasant range in Missouri. Row cropped areas provide pheasant foods and could be suitable for wintering cover if grain is unharvested and to a lesser degree if fall plowing is curtailed. Residual vegetation (in unplowed fields) also reduces soil erosion and retains soil moisture.

Odd Areas

Woodlot borders, fence rows, field borders and stream banks are frequently composed of low, brushy, dense forbs useful as winter roosting and feeding cover. These areas are extremely important because they furnish a permanency not afforded by crops. They are often the first to be "cleaned up" on a farm. Therefore, the first management technique is to encourage operators or landowners to leave the border areas. If these areas are to be retained, unnecessary burning, cutting, spraying or grazing should be reduced or eliminated.

Woodlots & Shelterbelts

Woodlots, well distributed and surrounded by fertile croplands, provide excellent winter refuge for pheasants. Woodlots with an abundance of shrubby growth in the understory and dense ground cover are the most desirable. Cutting or planting on a rotation basis which allows any part or all of the woods to contain early successional stages of brush is best for pheasants. Grazing and fire should be excluded.

Farmstead shelterbelts consisting of several rows of wildlife-friendly trees and shrubs offer pheasants good winter cover. Shelterbelts should have several rows of dense shrubs (e.g., wild plum, gray & roughleaf dogwood, viburnum) in the outer rows, with taller trees, including some evergreens, in the center rows. In addition to providing shelter from harsh winter weather, these plantings provide fruits and berries for pheasants and other wildlife during the summer and fall.

Wetlands

Wetlands and marshy areas provide winter refuge for pheasants in Missouri. Several waterfowl areas harbor good to excellent winter populations of pheasant. Emergent vegetation (heavy stands of cattail) and closed-canopy shrubs, (willow or dogwood) ensure protection from moderate to heavy snowfall. Wintering birds tolerate crowding, so the acreage of woody cover can be as small as 5 to 10 acres. Each wintering unit is increased in value when closely associated with herbaceous vegetation which doubles as roosting cover in the winter and as nesting cover in the spring.

Wildlife Reminders

Ripe Grapes provide a sweet treat for wildlife. Quail, turkey, raccoons, foxes, and white-tailed deer all enjoy these healthy snacks.

Quail roost on the ground at night in the patches of ragweed, goldenrod, and warm season grasses.

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