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Can we build a better pheasant?
asks T R Michels

     Most of us who hunt know that in order for game animals to survive, and thrive, they need good management, and good habitat. To find out what pheasants need for nesting habitat, security cover and food requirements, I talked with Al Berner, the group leader for the Farmland Wildlife Populations & Research Group of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Following are the questions I asked, and the responses.   

Q: What does it take to produce good numbers of pheasants, and have sustainable populations?    

Berner: In order to produce good numbers of pheasants, and have a sustainable population of birds to hunt you have to have the right kind of habitat. This includes suitable nesting, brooding and roosting cover in the form of CRP fields and old pastures. Along with this the birds need escape and thermal cover in the form of willow, dogwood thickets, plum thickets, small woodlots, overgrown fencerows, canary grass stands, switch grass or blue stem fields, standing corn, or cattail sloughs. They also use pine plantations, cedar stands and shelter belts. For food pheasants need seeds and insects found in meadows, old fields, creek bottoms, low wetlands, swamps, and agricultural fields of millet, sorghum, corn and soybeans.  

Q: Does weather effect pheasant production?

Berner: Weather is one of the most important factors in pheasant production. When states have mild winters, with above normal temperatures and the right of amount of moisture, hunters can expect a good carryover of pheasants the next year, which provides a good breeding population for the next spring. But, in order to have good spring production the habitat must have the proper amount of precipitation, and the right temperatures, and that varies from east to west.

     When the normally wet regions east of the Missouri River receive 20 inches or less of moisture per year, from April to June or July, pheasant populations in those areas generally do quite well. Below normal precipitation in the eastern states keeps the moisture down in nesting cover, which in turn allows the chicks to stay warm and grow faster. In the normally dry regions west of the Missouri River, pheasant populations do best when there is more than 20 inches of precipitation per year. Above normal precipitation in the western states, where the grasses are shorter, promotes plant growth and nesting cover, which again allows the chicks to stay warm and grow faster.

     Mild temperatures are important for pheasant chicks. Chicks don’t gain the ability to regulate their own temperature until they are about three weeks old, and that depends on the amount of protein they get. The right amount of precipitation and proper temperatures allows for good grasshopper production, which provides the chicks with the protein they need, and that allows them to grow faster and have better survival rates. 

Q: What do we need to do to produce more pheasants?

Berner: We need to provide more habitat. Multi-year set-aside plans, like CRP, are the key to producing pheasants, because CRP fields provide one of the major components of pheasant production, grasslands. CRP fields made up of warm season grasses such as switchgrass, big bluestem and Indian grass provide better winter cover and nesting/brooding areas for pheasants than cool season grasses like smooth brome and legumes such as alfalfa, because the cool season grasses and alfalfa are often flattened by snows during the winter.  

Q: Having watched several of the roosters in my area for years I’ve noticed that they don’t move more than a couple of hundred yards from their roosting areas to feed unless they have to. The two cock pheasants that roost in the wooded creek behind our house rarely travel more than a hundred yards from the creek to feed, because the woods along the creek is surrounded by an old pasture on the south, a cornfield on the west, a soybean field on the east, and a canary grass/cattail slough on the north.

     I‘ve watched another rooster for three years at the neighbors farm. It roosts in the spruce/pine grove around the house. I have rarely seen that bird more than fifty yards from the grove. Even when the birds are breeding in the spring that rooster crows and drums on the county road only 40 yards in front of the house, where his flock of hens meet him.

     In the fall and winter the pheasants on our farm roost in the switch grass on the south end the farm; in the canary grass/cattail swamp at the north end; and in the wooded creek bottom just behind the house. They regularly feed within 50-75 yards of the roosting areas. I have seen them fly across the highway in front of the house, but they usually stay within 200 yards of the road, and return to the roosting areas by mid-morning. How much of an area do pheasants use as a home range, and what do they need to stay in that area?

Berner: Pheasants generally spend most of their lives within 1 1/2 miles of where they were hatched. In order to survive in that area the birds need a grassy core area of about 20 acres, with 10 acres of herbaceous cover like cattail, big blue stem, switchgrass and phragmites (cane). The area needs to have about 2 acres of food a food source, such as corn. It also needs 3-5 acres of woody cover in the form of willows or plum thickets; or shelterbelts of evergreens, white cedar and spruce. These areas need to be at least 200 feet wide from the windward side to the downwind side, so the birds can find shelter from the wind and cold. Although pheasants need grassy areas for nesting, brooding and roosting areas, small grain crops such as wheat, oats and rye can work just as well. But, not more than 1/2 of the core area should be made up of row crops like corn and soybeans.      

Q: What can hunters do if they want to see more pheasants in their area?

Berner: If hunters want to have more pheasants they need to negotiate with farmers to leave some crops standing, or plant food plots for the birds. They should also lobby their legislators for more CRP. Hunters have to let their legislators know that the landowner or farmer needs to be paid to provide wildlife habitat. While many states have as much CRP now as they did in the past, there is probably less pheasant habitat now. In Minnesota for instance, we have averaged about 1.1 million acres in pheasant habitat over the last few years, with about 1.7 million acres of CRP. We now only have about 500,000 acres in pheasant habitat. Although we currently have 1.4-1.5 million acres in CRP in Minnesota, most of it is in areas where it benefits sharptail grouse, prairie chickens and waterfowl. There is no question that we need to provide habitat for those species too, but I’d like to see more habitat for pheasants.   

Q: Is there anything else we can do?

Berner: We need to stop paying landowners to control agricultural commodities through the farm programs, and pay them to improve environmental quality instead, by leaving more lands unfarmed. Not only do we need to take more land out of production, we need to keep landowners from destroying needed habitat by putting it into farm production. It’s cheaper in the long run to pay landowners for not putting more good habitat into farm production than it is to restore lands that are already in production. In order provide more wildlife habitat, landowners need to benefit from it, by being paid.  


     In order to produce more pheasants Berner says that, “Minnesota and other states need to place more of the marginal agricultural lands into CRP, and pay the landowners to manage for wildlife production and environmental quality, rather than crop production.” He says that while Minnesota has averaged  1.1 million acres in pheasant habitat over the last few years, with about 1.7 million acres of CRP, we now only have about 500,000 acres in pheasant habitat. Although we currently have 1.4-1.5 million acres in CRP most of it is in areas where it benefits sharptail grouse, prairie chickens and waterfowl. He agrees that we need to provide habitat for those species, but he would like to see more habitat for pheasants.

      “CRP lands need to be interspersed with food plots.” he states, and feels that large parcels of CRP often result in vast areas of one type of plant (monocultures) which don’t provide for all the needs of the birds. “Pheasants need nesting cover and brood raising habitat found in CRP fields and old pastures, and food sources in the form of millet, sorghum, corn and soybeans. They also need escape and thermal cover in the form of willow, dogwood and plum thickets, small woodlots, overgrown fencerows, canary grass stands, switch grass, standing corn, and cattail sloughs.” He adds, “They will also use pine plantations, cedar stands and shelter belts.

     “We can provide more nesting habitat and improve pheasant reproduction by not mowing ditches. We have people mowing miles of ditches along state and county highways near their farms and houses.  said Berner. Instead of mowing the ditches and destroying nesting cover Berner suggests that hunters build wood duck houses and bluebird houses and plant some acres for wildlife habitat. Farmers can also provide more nesting habitat by complying with the regulations (in some States) that state that 33 feet either side of the section line not be used for agriculture. In many areas farmers are complying with this regulation, because the township roads often follow the section line, and the 66 foot right of way is about the width of the road and ditch.

     Berner states that one of the other problems for pheasant production is egg loss and chick mortality from raccoons and skunks. He says, “Not as many people are hunting raccoons as they used to, because of the drop in fur prices in recent years. The increasing numbers of raccoons has caused a reduction in pheasant populations in some areas of the state.” 

    “South Dakota did a study back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, where they compared two areas of about 100 square miles. They didn’t do anything to control foxes on one area; on the other area they intensively controlled predation by removing 90 percent of the foxes. The area where they controlled foxes only produced 19 percent more pheasants. Then they expanded the program by removing the raccoons and skunks; which resulted in a 170 percent increase in the number of pheasants.” Berner goes on to state that, “But, this was in an area that had very good habitat and good nesting cover.”        

Habitat Improvement

     As someone who lives on a farm and manages wildlife habitat to improve conditions for pheasants, turkeys and deer, I have to agree with Berner. Managing for wildlife, whether you are a landowner or someone who leases hunting rights, costs money, either in lost income due to less farm acreage in order to provide more wildlife habitat, or in paying to improve or restore wildlife habitat.

     I don’t think the average hunter realizes how much time and effort goes into providing good wildlife habitat. Take shelterbelts for instance. Planting a shelterbelt involves purchasing the trees and shrubs, planting them, and either spraying herbicides or mowing the area to keep the vegetation down around the plantings long enough for them to take hold and reach a size where they aren’t overgrown by the existing vegetation. In some cases that may take years, and several hours of labor each year. We planted several trees and shrubs two years ago and I have had to spend about four hours every week throughout the summer mowing the grass. At the rate that the plants grow I will probably have to mow the area for at least two more years. 

     Providing food for the animals is also time consuming and expensive. Food plots involve tilling the land, fertilizing it, buying seed, planting the seed, and keeping the weeds down. In many cases this has to be done on a yearly basis. Even filling up the pheasant feeders with corn takes time and costs money.   

Landowner Perspective

     It seems that some hunters don’t appreciate the fact that landowners allow them to hunt on their land. Because our farm is on a state highway, and we have great pheasant habitat due to our land management practices, we have several hunters stop at the house every weekend asking if they can hunt pheasants. I usually give permission to one party a day to hunt specific areas of the farm. As a result of this it’s usually first come first served, and I have to turn down several hunters each week. While most of the hunters understand my reason for not allowing them to hunt, some of them seem quite upset when I tell them they can’t hunt, because someone hunted here already. I get the impression that their attitude is, “You let somebody else hunt here. Why can’t we?” It’s not an arbitrary thing I do, and it's not because I like being contrary. I do it because I want to give the birds a chance to rest and return to their normal habits, and I want to make sure there are enough roosters left for breeding during the next spring.

     One group of hunters finally figured out what I was doing and made sure they were always the first ones to arrive on the weekends. They even began to arrive early and park in the driveway, and continued to show up almost every weekend to hunt. I finally asked how many roosters they had taken off the property. When they told me how many they had taken I informed them I was going to have to stop all hunting for the year, because about 75 percent of the roosters had been taken.

     I shouldn’t have had to tell them to stop, because after hunting the farm for several weeks they knew almost as well as I did how many roosters had been on the farm when they started; and how many were left. But, I don’t think they even considered the fact that if I had allowed then to keep hunting they would have eliminated almost all of the roosters, and there might not be enough birds to hunt the next year.

     Incidentally, most of the hunters never bothered to stop to thank us after they hunted, or commented on the habitat improvements we were doing, even though they could easily tell we were doing it. Not one of them offered to help pay for the corn we put out either. One group of hunters did give us one of the birds they shot, and it was greatly appreciated. The next time you hunt on some else’s land make a point of showing your appreciation in some way, before and after you hunt. If you don’t, we may all have fewer hunting opportunities in the future.                                

 Landowner Relations

     When I was first began to hunt my father told me we should always respect the landowner's property;  by not driving on the fields, by closing all the gates, and by not leaving trash or shells on the ground. He also said that we should show our appreciation by offering the landowner some of the game, offering to help with some of the farm work, and by leaving a gift of cash at Christmas. That was good advice then, and it’s good advice now. If you really want to keep a good relationship with the landowner, give his wife a gift, or give the family a gift certificate for dinner at the local restaurant. A little kindness will provide you with a good place to hunt as long as the family is on the farm.    

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