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Pheasant Biology
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 evident.

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 blowing snow.

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 Establishment

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 Varieties

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 Programs

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 production land.

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