Pheasants 101

Nesting habitat and weather factors significantly influence fall pheasant populations.

Pheasants Forever's (PF) national headquarters receives plenty of phone calls this time of year, the question being - "What's the hunting season going to be like this fall?" The answer to that question depends heavily upon what happens the next two months.

Pheasants need mild weather conditions:

By the month of May, hen pheasants have laid their eggs and have entered the peak incubation stage of nesting. Incubation takes approximately 23 days, and peak hatch will occur in early to mid June.

It is during this time period that pheasants need cooperation from Mother Nature. The amount of moisture can greatly determine nesting success. Moisture is essential in that it spurs vegetation growth, creating nesting cover and attracting insects for new broods to feed on. However, heavy rains, or gully washers, can wash out nests before eggs hatch or wash away the young pheasants before they can escape the rising water. "Rain is good, but excessive rains can be harmful," said Rick Young, PF's Vice President of Field Operations, "We don't want those two, three or four inch precipitation events."

As the nesting season progresses into June and chicks hatch, mild weather is key for pheasants. Chicks become susceptible to exposure in elements that are too cool or too wet, and periods of extended drought can adversely affect cover quality, in turn making insects and food less available to broods. "Mild climate conditions in the first part of June give hens a good chance for a successful nest," Young said.

What you can do about nesting cover:

Nesting cover is the single most important limiting factor for pheasant populations. Fortunately, it is a factor that we can directly impact with proper land management. One nesting cover creation tool is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which provides large blocks of grasslands - good pheasant nesting cover. Hen pheasants seek out the mixtures of grasses and forbs provided by CRP for nesting because the diverse vegetation reduces the density of the grasses, making it easier for the chicks to move around. CRP also provides concealment from predators as well as abundant insects for newly hatched chicks.

"CRP is the most successful conservation program in U.S. history and annually produces 13.5 million pheasants given average weather conditions," said Dave Nomsen, PF's Vice President of Government Affairs, "Reauthorization of the program through the 2007 Federal Farm Bill is crucial to maintaining strong populations of pheasants, quail, ducks, and variety other wildlife."

Pheasants Forever supports the reauthorization of the program and an expansion in overall CRP acreage to 45 million acres. Pheasants Forever also supports an increase in the Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP) to 2 million acres per year. Similar to CRP, the GRP restores grasslands and conserves prairie, critical to pheasant production.

Like CRP and GRP, roadside areas are also important grassland habitat, with up to five acres of potential nesting cover along each mile of rural Midwestern roads. In some areas, 40% of pheasants in the fall population are produced in roadsides. Mowing hayfields and grassy areas in June and July results in severe nest losses, and chick and hen mortality.

"Mowing of any type of cover should be delayed until after the nesting season has concluded in the middle of July, and preferably until August," Young said, "Even with approaching mowers, tractors and machinery, pheasants are hesitant to leave their nests."

Delayed mowing and spot mowing or spraying in roadsides will not only help accomplish weed control, but will do so at less cost. Hens then nest undisturbed while roadsides achieve their maximum wildlife potential.

What's the hunting season going to be like this fall?: Much more will be known about the 2007 pheasant hunting outlook in a few months following the nesting season. Many states conduct pheasant roadside survey counts in August and those are the best tools at gauging what pheasant populations will be like in the fall.

The bottom line is good nesting habitat, combined with mild spring weather conditions, are the necessary conditions needed to create more pheasants. If they occur, hunters can be cautiously optimistic about the 2007 pheasant hunting season. You can influence your future autumn hunting success by contacting your elected officials and asking them to support strong conservation policy in the 2007 Federal Farm Bill.