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Pheasant flying up from snowy field

Habitat Needs of Pheasants

(A Farm and Ranch Guide to Developing and Maintaining Wildlife Habitat on the Northern Great Plains - Section 4)

Young pheasant

An ideal landscape for pheasants consists of about 70% cropland (approximately 30% row crop and 40% small grains) and 30% hay land or grassland, of which 10-15% is undisturbed nesting cover (i.e., not hayed until 1 August, or later). This combination of food and cover provides the needed pheasant life requisites.

A drinking water source is not a life necessity for pheasants as they get sufficient water intake from dew, frost and food sources.

The leading causes of mortality in adult pheasants are winter exposure and predation, rather than hunter harvest or dry conditions (note: extreme drought can negatively impact egg-laying and chick survival).

Pheasants use seasonal home ranges of about 1 square mile (640 acres) but may move 10 miles to find winter cover. In general, they require all seasonal habitat components (summer: nesting cover, brood habitat, and food plots; and winter: thermal cover and food plots) to be within 1 mile, and seasonal habitat to be no further than 10 miles apart. Ideally, a minimum of 30-60 acres (about 5-10%) of summer habitat should be nesting cover. Larger blocks of cover are preferable to narrow linear strips. However, linear cover – waterways, roadsides and field borders – is important to wildlife on a landscape level.

Pheasant rooster

Throughout the year, pheasants need the following cover and food types:

Nesting cover (May – June) – Dense herbaceous cover, with good overhead concealment from avian predators. Pheasants are six times more likely to nest in grassland than in woody areas such as tree rows.

Brood rearing cover (June – August) – Consists of vegetation with forbs (food sources) that is relatively open near the ground to allow easy travel by chicks, while still providing overhead concealment from avian and other predators. Alfalfa, standing corn or canola, and pollinator plots are preferred brood rearing cover for pheasants in North Dakota.

Roosting/escape cover (September – April) – Dense tall shrubs and hedges or dense herbaceous cover, cattail wetlands, weed-grown fence lines and small farmland woodlots. These areas of dense vegetation located near foraging sites are also necessary as escape cover.

Thermal or winter cover (October – March) – Dense herbaceous and woody vegetation provide thermal and protective cover during winter months. Tree rows such as lilac, caragana, or any other bushy vegetation, provides good winter cover. Winter food sources should include food plots of a food source with cover in winters with little to no snow. A food plot that has a mix of crops such as millet, corn and grain sorghum provide the most reliable winter food sources to pheasants. These areas should be around 10 acres to properly serve as food and shelter for pheasants during winter months.

Food – (Year-Round) - Waste grains, forbs and grass seeds, fruits and leaves. Adult pheasants also consume insects in spring and summer, and young birds survive almost entirely on bugs their first five weeks after hatching.

Note: None of the cover types mentioned above need to include trees. Pheasants will safely roost in shrubs. Trees provide habitat for avian predators that can destroy nests and kill adult pheasants. Pheasants do not typically travel great distances for their habitat needs, so if any required habitat element is not available within a quarter- to half-mile radius, that’s an area for consideration.

Trees and pheasant habitat

Prairie habitat

Although pheasants benefit from edge habitat found in agricultural landscapes with grass, cropland, cattail ringed wetlands, woody cover and weedy patches, they need relatively undisturbed herbaceous areas for nesting cover.

Trees, however, are sometimes detrimental if developed without a plan. Trees are often added to herbaceous cover with the goal of enhancing habitat, but studies in South Dakota and Colorado have found that pheasant nesting success was lower in and near shelterbelts. In addition, location of some trees and shrubs could reduce food plot use. Studies in South Dakota indicate pheasants used tree cover only at the end of a severe winter, (a 1- in 10-year event) though this use may have prevented total mortality. In other winters, hen pheasants were much more likely to use cattails, tall grass and food plots for winter cover.

Studies indicate that woody habitat is important for escape cover and good winter cover during severe weather conditions. However, trees should be limited or not included at all in woody habitat plantings. In addition, narrow tree belts (1-4 rows) can become death traps as they collect snow and can bury and suffocate pheasants looking for thermal cover. Linear tree plantings also provide travel lanes for mammalian predators and perches for avian predators such as crows, magpies and various birds of prey. These predators can reduce nesting success and increase hen mortality.

If woody habitat is planted, it is best to locate these plantings on the edge of nesting habitat, rather than in the middle, to reduce predator influence. Woody habitat should consist of scattered shrubs around the perimeter of nesting habitat to provide escape cover, but not create travel lanes for ground predators or perch sites for birds.

If other winter cover is not available, wide blocks of woody habitat can be planted in compatible soil. These block plantings should be at least 15 rows wide, comprised of predominately suckering shrubs. Consider native suckering shrubs that bear fruit for late fall and early winter food sources. If trees are used, select evergreen species that provide thermal cover.

Cropland Management Strategies

Migrating mallards in a wetland

The following practices can improve potential wildlife habitat within cropland:

  1. Avoid fall tillage. No-till or minimum tillage practices leave weed seeds and waste grain on or near the surface of the ground that can provide food for wildlife. Avoid mechanical activities and heavy pesticide use in spring. Inversion tillage destroys foods, cover and nests, destroys soil structure and opens fields to erosion.
  2. Avoid cropping wetlands and areas directly adjacent to riparian corridors. A grass buffer around wetlands and adjacent to riparian areas provides much needed cover in intensively farmed areas. Cultivation near wetlands promotes surface evaporation, increasing salt concentrations at the surface. Over time, salinity may reduce productivity, eventually making the land unfit for crop production. Buffers can be planted, maintained or allowed to naturally regenerate.
  3. Avoid burning cattails in and around wetlands. Cattails are preferred winter habitat for pheasants, providing thermal protection from bitter winds and heavy snow. Cattails within cropland provide ideal winter cover in close proximity to available food (waste grain).
  4. Manage saline areas by planting deep-rooted perennial forage species on recharge areas of saline seeps to use excess water before it reaches discharge areas. This will also reduce evaporation and prevent salts from reaching the surface. Perennial vegetation manages salinity and provides nesting cover for pheasants.
  1. Provide food on conventional crop fields by leaving several rows or strips of standing crops adjacent to permanent winter cover.
  2. In landscapes that are intensively farmed, provide nearby nesting and roosting habitat, such as planted cover (CRP and other set-aside grasslands) and wetlands. Include undisturbed or low-disturbance areas in the landscape to balance out more intensively managed areas.
  3. Provide properly distributed food plots to prevent unnatural concentrations of wildlife, which may lead to starvation, disease outbreaks or competition with domestic livestock food supplies. Food plots in blocks minimize accumulation of drifting snow and should be located within a quarter-mile of winter cover to minimize pheasant exposure to the elements when traveling to and from feeding.
  4. Heavy herbicide and insecticide use destroys many valuable wildlife food sources. Excessive or improper pesticide use in crop fields and adjoining areas will not only kill target weeds or insects, but also kill beneficial non-target plants and insects.
  5. Proper crop rotations can improve soil health and provide plant and insect diversity. Including winter cereal grains in a crop rotation system provides pheasants with green cover in which to nest in spring and provides habitat through harvest. Fall-planted crops also break up field work throughout a farming operation because they mature earlier than spring-planted small grains. Other crops, such as flax, canola and sunflowers, attract insects and can serve as good brood-rearing habitat if insecticide use is limited. Corn and soybeans serve as escape cover during summer and provide a food source during late fall until snow gets too deep.
  6. Consider incorporating alfalfa into a cropping system with small grains on a 4- to -5-year rotation. Delay haying until July 15 or leave an undisturbed block each year to allow for successful nesting. Wildlife-friendly haying operations reduce loss of nesting hens.
  7. Recognize that genetically modified crops might reduce wildlife benefits due to fewer weed seeds and insects.
  8. Managing crop residues can benefit resident wildlife. Tall stubble can provide food and thermal cover, and depending on snowfall, the benefits could last throughout winter. Combines equipped with stripper headers, which leave stubble height greater than 12-15 inches, provide the most benefit to pheasants while maximizing topsoil moisture retention.

Managing Hayland

Producers can hay one-third of a designated nesting area annually and still provide optimal wildlife nesting opportunity.

No matter the amount, delaying haying until August 1 each year yields best results for limiting mortality of pheasant nests and broods, while July 15 is an alternative date if hay quality is a priority (Figures 1 and 2).

If better hay quality and quantity is the desired goal, and a producer would like to hay up to 50% of dedicated nesting acres annually, following a haying rotation is a beneficial compromise. In this scenario, 50% of the field is cut annually, with each area cut two years in a row, then switching to the other area for two years. This helps ensure good residual cover for nesting most years, while usually increasing hay quality.

Inside-out haying, or haying toward the idle acres, allows pheasant broods and adults to escape to the unhayed area instead of getting trapped in a small strip in the middle of the field. Under this scenario, the producer hays the ends of the field first, then works back and forth toward the unhayed nesting cover.

If haying is used to manage and invigorate a grass stand, rake and remove dead grass (litter) from the soil surface. Using a heavy harrow or other light ground disturbance post-haying will allow more sunlight to reach the soil surface to encourage forb growth.

Cover Crops

Field planted with cover crops

Using cover crops, particularly for early harvested crops (peas, winter wheat, triticale and silage corn), benefit pheasant populations in a few ways:

  1. Cover crops benefit brood survival because chicks rely on high insect abundance for a protein source during their first 2-3 months after hatching. Cover crops with diverse, flowering seed mixes attract insects which benefit pheasant chicks.
  2. The diversity of plants used in mixes also adds to insect diversity for young birds. Cover crop mixes, which include species in the Brassicaceae family, such as turnip and radish, as well as, will provide quality seed for winter food if left standing to maturity.
  3. Cover crops provide vertical cover for escape from predators and thermal protection during winter months.
  4. Cover crops that are left standing in winter can also provide an important winter food source. Beneficial species include: soybeans, field pea, corn, sunflower, millet and sorghum.

Pheasant biology considerations

To benefit pheasants, it’s important to keep in mind the annual life cycle of a pheasant to meet year-round habitat needs. Also, although pheasants can move up to 10 miles to access winter cover, most habitat needs should be met within neighboring sections of land—a hen with young chicks typically moves less than 1/4 mile per day.

Nesting: Pheasant nesting begins late April and continues through early August, with a peak hatch period in late June or early July. For successful reproduction, pheasants need grass cover during nesting and cover with an open understory and abundant insects for chick rearing. For this reason, cover crops can meet an important biological need as soon as pheasants hatch.

Brood rearing: Once a brood reaches maturity (late August through September), thermal cover and winter food sources are the main requirements to ensure that they will survive to nest the following year.

Winter survival: Vertical cover and seed sources from cover crops are beneficial from October through March. Plants with rigid stems withstand heavy snow during severe winters and provide cover through the following spring. Vertical cover which is not going to be left on the landscape through summer should be removed before May to prevent the area from becoming a trap for nesting hen pheasants.

For more information about enhancing and providing and providing nesting cover and food sources, see sections on Field Borders and Buffer Strips, Inside-out Haying, Livestock Management, Cover Crops, Planting Native Grasses and Forbs, Reduced Tillage, Promoting Forbs and Mechanical Manipulation, see Habitat Management Practices for the Northern Great Plains.

Graph showing pheasant hatch dates in ND
Figure 1. Distribution of ring-necked pheasant hatch dates in North Dakota.
Graph showing pheasant nests at risk
Figure 2. Distribution of the percent of ring-necked pheasant nests at risk during the haying season. Note: pheasant chicks are flightless and vulnerable to haying, harvest, burning or other management of nesting and brood-rearing cover until 2-4 weeks of age, so percentages of chicks at risk would be 2-4 weeks after dates indicated for the bars in this figure.