Constructing a Pheasant Haven

By Tim Ackarman

By creating or enhancing wildlife habitat, landowners can turn almost any Iowa tract into a pheasant-hunting paradise.

While introducing non-native species has often created unforeseen problems, the importation of the ring-necked pheasant from Asia has been a rare unmitigated success.

In the late 19th and early 20th century’s conversion of Iowa’s pre-settlement prairie landscape to agriculture displaced native species requiring large blocks of undisturbed habitat. First introduced around 1900, pheasants were able to thrive in the patchwork of small crop fields, pastures and pockets of undisturbed habitat typical of the period.

Ringnecks were the undisputed kings of the hunting scene across most of the state by the 1960’s. More recently, however, changes in crop selection, intensification of farming practices and continued loss of pasture and remnant native habitat has significantly curtailed pheasant production in most areas.

Several consecutive seasons of unfavorable weather a few years back further impacted ringnecks. Despite a slight uptick over the past two years, pheasant numbers remain a mere shadow of what they were during the “glory days.”
Yet despite the ups and downs, some properties produce birds even during the leanest years and bounce back quickly and impressively when conditions improve.

So what do these “honey holes” have that other tracts don’t? They provide all of the essential ingredients pheasants need to survive and thrive. These ingredients—nesting/brood-rearing cover, winter cover and food—can be established and/or enhanced on nearly any Iowa property.

Landowners able to invest the time, money and sweat equity have the opportunity to create their own pheasant havens. And while it isn’t cheap or easy, the necessary steps can normally be accomplished more quickly and economically than is the case for many other habitat-management objectives.

Taking Stock
Before undertaking any management initiatives, the landowner should begin by assessing the present status of their property. He or she needs to consider what is currently available for wildlife and what is needed. The answers will depend on several factors, most notably the region of the state along with the present condition of the property and those immediately adjacent.

Winter cover suitable for extreme southern Iowa may be inadequate along the Minnesota border. Food plots might be essential on a property surrounded by pasture and woodlands but a luxury for a tract surrounded by grain fields. Nesting cover, while critical to most properties, might be comparatively less important if the land lies adjacent to a large grassland complex.

If one essential ingredient is in short supply while others are readily available on adjacent properties, the landowner should focus primarily on the limiting factor. At my own pheasant haven, for example, there is a small shelterbelt on a bordering pubic hunting area and two larger ones each less than a quarter mile away on private land. Given this abundance of winter cover I’ve focused my efforts almost exclusively on nesting habitat, with outstanding results.

Once having determined what is needed, the landowner should consider how best to provide it. There are many possibilities, with the optimal choices dependent on numerous factors including region of the state, terrain, soil type(s), cost, willingness and ability of the landowner to conduct ongoing management, etc.

Finding the right mix for an individual tract is an undertaking too complex to be addressed in a single article and requiring more knowledge and skill than the average landowner is likely to possess. Fortunately there are many resources available to help, most notably the local U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Iowa DNR, non-government habitat organizations such as Pheasants Forever, and private habitat-management contractors.

A good place to begin is with the USDA. Officials there can provide landowners with direct technical assistance or steer them to the right resources as well as determine whether they are eligible for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or other programs offering government assistance.

Even while seeking expert guidance, a general understanding of pheasant habitat management will help the landowner to ask appropriate questions, decide what options fit his or her needs and assess the long-term success of the chosen strategies. The remainder of this article will offer an overview intended to help landowners gain such a general understanding.

Nesting and Brood Rearing
Although pheasants can and do utilize a variety of habitat types, they are primarily and upland bird. They nest and raise their young almost exclusively on grassland areas and prefer to roost and loaf there as well unless weather conditions force them to do otherwise.

Larger blocks of grassland provide better habitat than linear strips such as fence lines, filter strips, waterways, road ditches, etc. These strips, while infinitely better than no habitat at all, are easier for predators to target efficiently, are often vulnerable to flooding and fill with snow relatively quickly.

Since blocks of grassland are in short supply across much of Iowa, nesting cover is the limiting factor for optimal pheasant production in most cases. Unless significant nesting cover is available on adjacent tracts, at least 75% of a property managed for pheasants should be dedicated to nesting cover.

Fortunately, most Iowa land was once covered in upland grasses and will readily support them if given the opportunity. Not all grasslands are equally beneficial, however. Wildlife thrives on diversity, so a large tract composed exclusively or primarily of a single grass (a monoculture) provides limited habitat relative to one offering a diverse mix of species.

A native Iowa prairie might easily contain over 100 species of warm-season grasses and forbs (flowering plants). While it is nearly impossible to achieve this level of diversity on a restored prairie, there are many seed mixes available offering 20 or more native grasses and forbs suitable to specific regions and soil types.

Mixes of this nature are preferred when establishing new habitat on most properties. These native plants tend to thrive in Iowa, and once established require only occasional mowing or (ideally) burning for maintenance. Complexes planted to such mixes tend to offer patches of thicker escape cover interspersed with open areas conducive to travel, feeding and loafing.

Further, native-type grasslands attract a variety of insects that serve as the primary diet for growing pheasant chicks. The plants tend to be tall, providing overhead as well as ground cover, and stand up relatively well to wind, rain and snow. They also serve as habitat for other ground-nesting birds and a large number of additional wildlife species.

Unfortunately, native seed mixes are fairly expensive. Those on a limited budget may turn to cool-season grasses mixed with legumes such as alfalfa and clover.

Although the majority are non-natives, cool-season grasses also thrive on most Iowa properties. They likewise offer good nesting and ground cover, while the associated legumes provide flowers to attract insects.

Cool-season stands tend to be shorter and more pliable than natives, meaning they offer less overhead cover and tend to fill in with or collapse under snow more easily. The grasses, most notably brome, tend to grow shorter and denser over time, crowding out the legumes.

These “sod-bound” stands require periodic tillage and inter-seeding with legumes to maintain their productivity. Heavy farming equipment is generally required, as a light disc or harrow will often barely scratch the surface of a dense, sod-bound stand.

Existing stands of sod-bound brome or other cool-season grasses can be rejuvenated quickly and relatively inexpensively by tilling and inter-seeding as well, although conversion to native plants is preferable if the landowner has the resources.

Winter Cover
Once grasslands fill with snow, pheasants require heavier cover for thermal protection and to escape predators. The three primary types of winter cover are wetlands, heavy stands of native grasses, and thickets or shelterbelts.

Iowa’s Prairie Pothole Region covers very roughly the middle third of the state from Des Moines to the Minnesota border. This region was once dotted with shallow wetlands that provided habitat for a wide array of plant and animal species. Dense stands of sedges, rushes and especially cattails in these wetlands offer excellent thermal and escape cover that stands up well to all but the heaviest ice and snow.

On property were such wetlands once existed, restoring them is often as easy as breaking a tile, plugging an intake or damming a drainage ditch. This must be done in cooperation with the local drainage district and under the guidance of experts knowledgeable about wetland ecology and drainage infrastructure to ensure the project will succeed without negatively impacting other landowners.

Although large wetlands offer nearly optimal winter habitat when restored where they naturally occurred, it is generally cost-prohibitive and marginally effective to establish them in other areas.

A monoculture of tall, dense native grasses can provide adequate overhead and thermal cover while standing up reasonably well to ice and snow. Most commonly utilized is switchgrass, which isn’t prohibitively expensive, establishes itself quickly, thrives in most parts of the state and requires only periodic burning for maintenance.

As with nesting cover, a large block of grass is preferable to a small row. If it is to provide the principle winter cover, a good rule of thumb is to plant 25% of the property with switchgrass to a maximum of 20 acres.

Naturally occurring woody thickets can provide adequate cover during mild to moderate winters, particularly in southern Iowa. Certain fruit and seed-bearing species offer a supplementary food source as well. They generally require no maintenance, although periodic mowing, burning or herbicide treatment around the edges may be needed to prevent encroachment on adjacent grasslands.

Unless they are exceptionally large and dense, however, thickets may provide less than optimal cover during particularly cold or snowy winters. Planting a few rows of conifers (“evergreen” trees) on the south and/or east side of an existing thicket will greatly enhance its benefit as winter cover.

A dedicated shelterbelt provides the most effective and durable winter cover under the most severe conditions. An optimal shelterbelt would include (from north to south) two to four rows of shrubs to catch snow, three to four rows of taller trees to break the wind and three to four rows of coniferous trees to provide thermal and escape cover. Landowners with adequate funds and space could consider planting a snow catch and windbreak on the south side of the conifers as well.

Shelterbelts of just a few acres will provide excellent winter cover for a large grassland complex. Even so a shelterbelt is expensive and labor intensive to plant relative to other options and requires several years of watering and weed control to become firmly established. An alternate source of winter cover such as switchgrass is needed until the shelterbelt is sufficiently mature.

A less expensive alternative is to plant a smaller shelterbelt (four to eight rows) on the north side of a switchgrass stand to further protect the grass from wind and snow.

Food Plots
Pheasants are masters of finding waste grain in Iowa fields. Many forbs and grasses along with some trees and shrubs provide food sources as well. Pheasants almost never go hungry.

However, snow cover often forces birds to range farther and search longer for food. Prolonged exposure and increased visibility makes them significantly more susceptible to predation. Establishing a food plot as near to winter cover as is practical greatly decreases mortality.

Food plots should consist primarily of high-energy grains with plants tall and sturdy enough to stand up to wind, ice and snow. Corn and sorghum are optimal choices, while intermixing soybeans and/or cereal grains is an option. Adding sunflowers will increase attractiveness to doves.

Placing the plot on the south side of a shelterbelt or switchgrass stand may further enhance durability. Soil testing and fertilization will increase plot productivity, as will cultivation and/or herbicide application to control weeds.

Although a small plot could feed a lot of pheasants, landowners must take into account that deer, turkeys and other species will likely visit as well. Yet planting a large plot on a smaller property at the expense of nesting or winter cover is usually counterproductive. A good guideline is to dedicate no more than 10% of the property to a food plot up to a total of about five acres.

Unlike the habitat components, food plots must be reestablished every year or two. This requires an ongoing expense as well as access to tillage and planting equipment. While a well-managed food plot can really boost pheasant numbers on a property, this is probably the least-essential element to the overall management plan for the landowner with limited resources.

Summing It Up
Iowa was once a pheasant-hunting Mecca because our climate and landscape are nearly ideal for raising ringnecks. Changes in the business of farming, however, mean the entire state will likely never again be bursting at the seams with roosters.

Yet the essential components for top-notch pheasant production—nesting cover, winter cover, and food—can be established on most properties within a few years at reasonable cost and effort. For landowners willing and able to make the investment, the “good old days” may be yet to come.

Resources
To find your local USDA Service Center, go to http://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app.

To learn about state programs that help landowners establish and maintain habitat, go to http://www.iowadnr.gov/Conservation/Wildlife-Landowner-Assistance.

Pheasants Forever offers educational materials online and in print as well as seed for both grasslands and food plots. The organization also works in cooperation with USDA and DNR to provide technical assistance. Learn more at http://iowapf.net/Default.aspx.