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Field Report: Pheasant Nesting Habitat Conditions

Weather conditions for nesting pheasants have been mild across much of the ringneck range, but habitat loss remains the primary concern. Pheasants Forever File Photo

While the date may vary slightly from the northern reaches of the pheasant range to its southern fringe, the average pheasant nest incubation start date is May 24th. The peak of the pheasant hatch follows 23 days later on approximately June 15th. The following describes recent pheasant nesting conditions, and was compiled through field reports from state natural resource agency wildlife biologists.

Colorado - Coming into spring, the overall pheasant population in Colorado was strong, and the state’s spring crow count survey should be comparable to last year’s phenomenal showing, says Ed Gorman, Small Game Manager with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The downside is there was no winter moisture, so while there is good nesting cover, buoyed by green wheat, brood survival could be an issue due to a lack of forbs and broadleaves to generate brood cover and insect production as brood food. Gorman said the silver lining to the significant amount of CRP that’s expired from the program in Colorado is that most is being replaced as winter wheat, which serves as suitable pheasant nesting habitat for Colorado birds in the spring.

Illinois - The mild winter should have led to better pheasant survival, and though much of the pheasant range was abnormally dry in early spring, May rain events brought much of that range back to normal, reports Michael Wefer, Ag and Grassland Wildlife Program Manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Wefer added that a warm spring with low-to-normal rainfall bodes well for pheasant nest success where habitat remains. One habitat bright spot is the acreage enrolled in Illinois’ CRP State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement, which accounts for 6,300-plus acres in the pheasant range that are now two years old and close to being fully established as productive upland habitat.

Indiana - A good breeding summer last year and the extremely mild winter of 2011-2012 led to a big increase in Indiana’s spring pheasant crowing count, reports Budd Veverka, Farmland Game Research Biologist with the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife. “Road routes in our primary pheasant range of Benton County exhibited a 127 percent increase over 2011 numbers, and were 88 percent higher than the 10-year average, with more modest increases observed across the rest of the range,” Veverka said. With enough rain to keep things green, Veverka feels good about the prospects of this nesting season. Indiana is also putting more funding toward habitat management at its game bird habitat areas.

Iowa - Barring increased wet and or cold temps through mid-June, Iowa may finally see an increase in bird numbers after five lousy years, reports Todd Bogenschutz, Upland Wildlife Research Biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. In examining recent trends, Bogenshutz says this year is shaping up much like 2003, when Iowa saw a 42 percent increase in its overall pheasant count. The northwest and north-central regions of Iowa had the highest average counts last year and thus are the region’s most likely to have the best rebounding numbers this fall.

Kansas - The state is looking at a decline in its breeding population of pheasants due to the carryover effect of last summer’s extreme drought in western Kansas. “This decline was extreme in southwest and south-central Kansas, and our spring crow counts are showing declines in those areas,” reports Dave Dahlgren, Small Game Specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. Spring has brought precipitation to western Kanas, and conditions for nesting hens have been “near perfect” according to Dahlgren. Now attention turns to winter wheat conditions in western Kansas, as the crop serves as nesting habitat for pheasants. “The only concern now is the prospect of an early harvest, which could reduce nest survival at a large landscape scale. Currently the agricultural community is anticipating the wheat harvest to be at least 2 weeks earlier than normal,” Dahlgren said, adding the state could use a little more precipitation to continue the good nesting conditions and create good brooding conditions.

Michigan - The winter was abnormally mild this year and spring came early and has stayed relatively dry so far, reports Ben Wickerham, Pheasants Forever’s Michigan Regional Representative. Anecdotal reports of brood sightings in areas absent of them in recent years are a good sign.

Minnesota – The winter of 2011-12 was one of the mildest on record for Minnesota. “Pheasants were able to use grassland habitat and waste grain in harvested cropland throughout the entire winter, which is very uncommon for Minnesota.  Hen survival should have been excellent during the past winter,” reports Kurt Haroldson, Assistant Regional Wildlife Manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Spring weather has been warm and dry, though a recent period of heavy rains and flooding is a concern in some locations. “If favorable weather persists, good progress should be made toward recovery from the previous devastating year (64 percent decline in pheasant counts).” Haroldson notes the significant area of concern is that nearly 300,000 acres of CRP lands will expire from the program this September.

Montana - It’s been a great spring, weather-wise, so far for Montana pheasants, reports Rick Northrup, Habitat Section Supervisor with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, though he notes more reports of former CRP lands in eastern Montana being converted for agricultural use.

Nebraska - According to the state’s April Rural Mail Carrier Survey, the statewide pheasant index was slightly higher in 2012, up 2 percent from 2011. Spring seems to be on an accelerated timetable this year in Nebraska, where there are already reports of pheasants hatching in the southern tier of the state, according to Jeff Lusk, Program Manager for Upland Game for the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission. Spring conditions have been warm and relatively dry leading into what will be the peak hatch period.

North Dakota – A very mild winter allowed North Dakota pheasants to enter spring in excellent shape, says Stan Kohn, Upland Game Management Supervisor with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department.  The spring season has continued the trend, with mild rains and good nesting vegetation. Kohn notes that though the spring breeding population is lower than recent years, it is still above average. “If present spring weather conditions remain, pheasant populations will bounce back some, with the southwest probably having the best population this fall,” Kohn says. The major habitat concern is the 840,000 acres of CRP slated to leave the program in North Dakota later this year, with the biggest losses expected in the eastern part of the state.

South Dakota - Over winter survival of pheasants was excellent in South Dakota, reports Travis Runia, Senior Upland Game Biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. The mild winter weather trend continued into spring as above normal temperatures and normal precipitation prevailed over much of the pheasant belt.  “Adequate moisture existed to prompt good growth of cool season grasses used by nesting pheasants.  So far, weather has been favorable for nesting pheasants,” Runia said. Of more concern than the weather is the continued loss of upland nesting cover in “The Pheasant Capital.” “CRP grassland acreage has declined by 400,000 acres since 2007 and 225,000 of the existing 1.1 million acres are scheduled to expire this fall,” Runia said. In addition to the loss of CRP acres, the conversion of grazing lands to cropland has reduced available nesting cover by approximately another 3 million acres since 1985.

Oregon - Conditions in Oregon are shaping up more favorably than the past two years, says Dave Budeau, Upland Game Bird Coordinator with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “This year we had good moisture in March and the first part of April with current May conditions dry and above average temps.  If this pattern holds through the peak hatching period over the next few weeks we could be in good shape for upland game bird production,” Budeau says.

Utah – The adult breeding population of pheasants in Utah is holding steady, but the spring has been very hot which could translate into lower nesting success, this according to Jason Robinson, Upland Game Coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Wisconsin - One of the state’s mildest winters on record certainly helped pheasant survival – a much needed reprieve from the previous severe winters. Anecdotal reports from state biologists indicate an increase in the number of crowing roosters this spring, including at the state Department of Natural Resources’ Glacial Habitat Restoration Area in east-central Wisconsin, and nesting season weather has been favorable, says Doug Fendry, Pheasants Forever Regional Wildlife Biologist in Wisconsin.

Field Notes are compiled by Anthony Hauck Pheasants Forever’s Online Editor. Email Anthony at AHauck@pheasantsforever.org and follow him on Twitter @AnthonyHauckPF.

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12 Responses to “Field Report: Pheasant Nesting Habitat Conditions”

  1. Roger A Burns says:

    Glad to get these field reports. Sounds encouraging.
    How will the 3-4 mil acres of enrollment just announced
    impact these reports for fall?
    Thanks so much for these updates! ! !

  2. Sandy Law says:

    Unknown who I am even addressing this questions to. Here is my concern/question…if hatches are to be expected approx mid June (I am in Kansas) how can they survive the anticipated early wheat harvesting? Our local farmers are going to begin to cut the wheat in the next 6 or 7 days….I have 300 acres of habitat that I am trying to improve for quail and pheasant, but all around me is wheat and beans

  3. @Sandy – that’s the chief concern for nesting pheasants in Kansas, similarly expressed by the Kansas wildlife biologist, which could significantly impact survival. It’s certainly never easy being a ring-necked pheasant! – Anthony Hauck, Online Editor, Pheasants Forever

  4. @Roger – not sure yet how many of these acres are re-enrolled versus new acreage to the program, but glad to see interest in the nation’s leading conservation program from landowners and ag producers. – Anthony Hauck, Online Editor, Pheasants Forever

  5. chris carter says:

    how about the pheasant numbers in central kansas?

  6. @Chris – we should know more when Kansas’ spring crow counts are released in the next month, and then the August roadside count will really tell us as that will include brood counts. – Anthony Hauck, Online Editor, Pheasants Forever

  7. With the hatch being early and with the early warmth and a lot of early insects hatahing,does this mean that the potential for a good survial rate for the broods

  8. @Ernie – If quality cover is there for nesting and brooding, the insects should follow. Good nesting cover will have a forb (flower) component, which attracts insects like a magnet.

    For the first weeks of its life, a chick’s diet will consist of 90% insects, and for good reason. Insects are very high in protein, and each chick that is born needs to grow and develop as fast as possible to ensure survival. Protein also allows a chick to maintain a constant body temperature; something they struggle with in early life. If the amount of insects in the area decreases, it will take the chick additional days to be able to control its temperature. With all of these variables working against them, it is no wonder that over 20% of spring chicks die within two weeks of hatching.

    -Anthony Hauck, Online Editor, Pheasants Forever

  9. James chance says:

    I just want to say how great pheasant and quail forever are doing for our conservation.
    I live in north central kansas. We have had a extremely mild winter with hardly any snow, which is fine by me. My question is, since we have had such a early spring does that mean that the hens have been nesting earlier and that we could have more than one clutch per hen? successful first clutch that is. I know wheat harvest is 2 to 3 weeks early. I didn’t know if that would affect nesting habits or not.

    Thanks for the great work done PF and QF has done

  10. @James – thanks for stating your support of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever! Generally, it seems nesting is a few days to a week or two ahead of schedule in most parts of pheasant country this year. Pheasants are reliant on the winter wheat crop as cover in the Great Plains, so the early harvest could definitely have an impact on nesting/brood success. How much? We’ll know come August when brood counts are conducted. – Anthony Hauck, Online Editor, Pheasants Forever

  11. [...] View Pheasants Forever’s complete state-by-state nesting conditions field report here. [...]

  12. Jim Brown says:

    I live in Northen California and were are in an extreme drought. The quail haven’t started nesting and the pheasants haven’t either. Could that be because there will be hardly any insects for the chicks and the brood survival will be very poor? Just a thought because they are really late. We have only had 6″ of precip. since July of 2011.


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