Posted: August 18, 2005
Winter Pheasant Biology
Like much of the traditional habitat found throughout the pheasant range, food
availability has been adversely impacted by the increased demand for higher
agricultural production. Unlike traditional habitats that have been directly
destroyed, however, the relationship with food availability is not so
In fact, throughout most of the traditional pheasant range during the average
year, food is in abundant supply and generally not considered a limiting factor.
Starvation of wild pheasants is practically unheard of. Why then do most
biologists consider food plots an essential part of proper pheasant management?
The answer to this question can be found by examining the relationship between
winter food and winter cover.Winter Habitat
Like most typical pheasant habitats, the use of winter cover types is
constantly changing based on availability. Availability takes on new meaning
during the winter months when a heavy snowfall can influence the amount of usable
habitat as fast as any combine or tillage tool. As such, it is critical to
understand the basic types of winter cover utilized by pheasants.
Winter habitat can roughly be divided into foraging cover and roosting cover.
Foraging cover helps keep birds concealed from predators while they are feeding.
Roosting cover is where the birds can seek shelter from harsh temperatures and
During mild winters there may be little or no difference between these two
cover types. As a general rule, the closer these cover types are positioned, the
more pheasants will benefit from them.Foraging Patterns
As with habitat availability, foraging patterns are also changing during
winter months. During fall and following harvest, waste grain can be found
abundantly scattered throughout a typical grain field. Unless the fields are
immediately tilled this waste grain will be available to foraging pheasants.
Cover in the form of grain stubble and weed patches, combined with the cryptic
coloration of pheasants, is oftentimes adequate to conceal the birds while they
are feeding. Pheasants are widely scattered during this time of year, making it
difficult for both predators and hunters to consistently locate birds.
Following the first snowfall, however, the vegetation remaining in these
fields will trap blowing snow and effectively bury the foraging cover. Pheasants
may still be able to feed on buried grain by scratching through the snow, but
they will be forced to do so in the open, exposed to predators and winter
weather. In addition, the coloration that blended so well with fall colors now
serves to make the birds more conspicuous against a white
background.The Need For Food/Cover Plots
Once foraging cover has been buried with snow, pheasants tend to be
distributed according to available roosting cover. They are generally hesitant to
feed beyond one-half mile from this cover, even if abundant food exists beyond
this range. As birds become concentrated into the relatively few remaining
"islands" of roosting cover, the amount of food that can be safely obtained is
effectively reduced. It is at this point when pheasants begin experiencing their
highest mortality rates during the winter months. The vast majority of this
mortality will occur not from starvation but from exposure to harsh winter
weather conditions and predation. Blowing snow may actually suffocate pheasants
if their beaks freeze over, or harsh temperatures may overcome a bird's ability
to generate body heat, causing them to die from exposure.
With good quality winter habitat, pheasants are able to survive the winter
snows and harsh temperatures for many months. The problem, however, does not end
with just staying alive. Hen pheasants must actually gain weight through the
first half of the winter in order to replenish the weight lost during the
previous nesting season. Birds that undergo a great deal of stress during the
winter months may actually have their highest mortality rate during the following
spring. For hens, there will be a strong correlation between spring body weight
and chick production.
As such, it is important for these birds to have dependable sources of food
that will enable them to enter the spring in good condition. The principle
objective of winter food patches, then, is to establish safe foraging patterns
that restrict unnecessary movements and provide a dependable source of food to
help carry female birds through the winter in good condition.
With this principle objective in mind it is easy to see why most biologists
consider food plots to be an essential part of good pheasant management. It also
helps to underscore the importance of establishing food plots closely adjacent to
existing winter cover. Otherwise, the plots must provide significant cover in
addition to being a source for food.Planning For Food/Cover Plot
The importance of planning food plots before actually establishing them cannot
be overemphasized. In fact, careful planning may be the difference between
projects that are buried by the first winter blizzard and ones that will help the
birds make it through and beyond the storm.Selecting Food/Cover Plot
Ringneck Ranch is a diverse blend of winter rye grass, Milo, Dove sunflower,
Manor Buckwheat, millet, Trapper pea and Cowpeas. These varieties work together
to stand tall during the winter. It provides both upper and under cover, making
sure that food is available when the snow plugs the under cover. All varieties
are food producing with the exception of the rye, which attracts insects that are
so important for upland chicks.
Large acreages of corn may often provide suitable cover as well as food,
although this is not necessarily true with grain sorghum. When combined with
forage sorghum, however, grain sorghum can provide an excellent food/cover plot
through the winter. Combinations of corn and grain sorghum are also attractive,
as they will provide available food during different seasons, thereby helping to
establish favorable foraging patterns.
Since maximum production is generally not the top priority of food plots,
variety selection is not a critical factor. What is critical is that the plot be
adequately fertilized and weeds controlled to avoid excessive competition. The
presence of some weeds may actually benefit pheasants by providing higher protein
contents than either corn or sorghum. However, if weeds become a serious problem,
grain production may be seriously reduced, stalk vigor diminished and cover value
reduced as well.Locating Food/Cover Plots
After selecting a food plot variety, the two most critical factors to consider
are the size and location of the plot. It is not uncommon for blizzards to fill
the outer 25-50 rows of standing corn or sorghum in a single storm. In this
light, it is evident that large (3-10 acre) food plots are most desirable for
countering winter blizzards. This fact also helps to underscore the importance of
square or block type plantings as opposed to linear food plots.
The placement of food plots will oftentimes dictate their size, in many
instances restricting it because landowners are unwilling to allocate larger
tracts of land. If smaller plots are needed, the amount of snow drifting into
them can be lessened somewhat by establishing snow traps. This is easily
accomplished by harvesting 12-20 rows just inside the outer 4-6 rows on the
windward side. This is a good management practice on larger food plots as well,
especially if there are plans to harvest the crop in the spring.
Whenever possible, large food plots should be located directly adjacent to
winter cover on the windward side (generally the northwest). If this is not
possible, effective food plots can be established nearby if they are linked via
corridors or other escape cover to traditional winter covers. In the absence of
any traditional winter cover, large 10 acre-plus blocks of corn may be planted to
serve as both food and shelter for the birds.Working With Existing
Because landowners are frequently unwilling to devote large acreages toward
establishing wildlife food/cover plots, it is oftentimes most efficient to
dovetail with existing government programs. There are a myriad of wildlife
habitat programs offered by the federal, state and local governments, non-profit
organizations as well as local sportsman's clubs. These programs offer cost
sharing, incentive payments as well as possibly annual acreage payments.
There are few places that handle all programs available, however, there are
private consulting firms that have a working knowledge of all programs, the
conditions and requirements of each. These firms can be a valuable resource in
wading through the red tape as well as maximizing your properties cash flow. By
placing food/cover plots on these acres we can make valuable use of out of