The keys to suitable pheasant habitat are:
- Undisturbed nesting cover between May and July
- Good brood habitat in the summer
- Well distributed protective cover in winter
- Ample food source near both of the above cover types
These conditions should be present within 100 acres or less, the average home range of a pheasant.
Undisturbed nesting cover is critical to pheasant habitat. Most nesting takes place from mid-May to August, a time in which nesting habitat should not be bothered through land management and similar activity. Giving pheasant the space needed during this period is an excellent way for improving their numbers.
Ideal cover consists of vegetation that is dense, leafy-stemmed, erect, herbaceous, and has 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
- Weedy draws
- Native grass pastures
Alfalfa and alfalfa/smooth brome hayfields are commonly used for nesting. However, these are not ideal since mowing in early June normally occurs during the time of incubation, leading to high mortality among nesters. Further, for hens that do manage to escape, successful re-nesting is not likely due to subsequent mowing.
Land managers interested in pheasant production should consider the establishment of permanent nesting areas on the farm.
Quality brood offers overhead concealment, is open at the ground level to allow easy travel, and produces an abundance of insects during the chicks’ first weeks of development.
Cover consisting of broad-leafed plants such as wild sunflowers, giant and common ragweed, foxtail, smartweed, and a diversity of other native plants open at ground level is ideal. Scattered brood cover throughout large undisturbed patches of nesting cover. Otherwise, brood cover may be stationed adjacent to nesting cover.
Brood cover should be available and left undisturbed from late-May to August.
Management by Habitat Type
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 August 1st 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 near May 5th. 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 disturbance is necessary to enhance optimum cover density (every 3 to 5 years), spring burning should be completed before April 15th. If mechanical clipping or pasturing are being used, delay until after Aug. 1st.
- Warm-season grasses should receive top priority when establishing permanent nesting cover.
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
- Plantings should be within a quarter-mile of available food and within a half-mile of roosting cover.
Refer to warm season grass planting guides for detail on methods of seeding and management.
Roadsides, ditches, and levees have high pheasant nesting potential. Suggested management of these areas is to mow only once every two to three years, and only after August 1st. 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.
Fencerows, field borders, and stream banks often have plenty 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 further improved by excluding cattle and controlling shrubby invasion.
The emergent vegetation zones offer 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. The use of wetland cover for nesting is determined largely by the amount and quality of residual cover present in the spring.
Vegetation that is plush, mound-like, and resistant to flattening makes for preferable wetland nesting. Mixes, sedges, and aster-goldenrod communities are more attractive for nesting than monotypic sedge and cattail cover.
Retention is by far the most important management practice for wetlands. Steps to reduce or eliminate frequent burning and/or draining are critical for this habitat type.
Wetlands and marshy areas also provide winter refuge. 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.
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.
Effective winter cover should stop snow drift, reduce wind chill, and provide protection from predators.
Cultivated fields make up the majority of pheasant range in Missouri. Row cropped areas provide foods and are suitable for winter cover if grain is unharvested and to a lesser degree if fall plowing is curtailed.
Woodlot borders, fencerows, field borders, and stream banks are frequently composed of low, brushy, dense forbs useful for winter roosting and forage. These areas are extremely important because they offer year-round permanency not afforded by crops. Unnecessary burning, cutting, spraying, or grazing should be reduced or eliminated.
As an alternative, landowners may consider setting aside areas for permanent pheasant habitat on their property. This provides much needed cover for pheasant populations while accounting for other land management objectives.
Woodlots and Shelterbelts
Woodlots that are 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.
Segmented cutting or planting on a rotational basis is ideal as it encourages early successional stages of brush growth. Grazing and fire should be excluded from management plans.
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., gray and roughleaf dogwood, wild plum, and viburnum) in the outer rows, with taller trees, including some evergreens, in the center rows. These plantings also provide fruits and berries for pheasants and other wildlife during the summer and fall.
- 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 between 10 and 20 percent of the diet.
Where Pheasants Do Best
Agricultural sites work well for pheasant, especially where they can find grain crops, hay, and grassland in a diversified pattern. Roughly 50 percent of the land should be in row crops such as corn and soybeans.
Alternate feeding sites like non-agricultural sites, set-aside acres, wetlands, roadsides, and weedy draws will provide ongoing provisions when time comes for plowing.