Winter Cover Basics
In extreme winters in the northern states, it is not uncommon to see a multitude of pheasants scratching in the snow in search of food. Our first thought may be, “those pheasants are going to starve if I don’t feed them.” But is food really the limiting factor when it comes to pheasants surviving harsh winter conditions? The answer is no.
The ultimate limiting factor for bird survival in a tough winter is quality thermal cover. A pheasant that starves to death is rare, and most will die of exposure or predators long before starvation. Corn and grains are a staple diet for wintering pheasants, but they also feed on weed seeds, berries, and just about anything they can get their beak on. So what can we do to ensure the pheasants will make it through a tough winter? Establish quality winter cover on your property.
Wetland complexes provide excellent winter cover for wildlife during the harsh winter months. It is not uncommon for wetlands to hold 75% of the wintering pheasant population. Wetlands can consist of thick cattails and shrubs, blocking snow and keeping wildlife warm. Even when cattail sloughs become drifted with snow, pheasants are effective at burrowing to get out of the cold. The north and west sides of the wetland may get drifted with snow, but in a large complex much of the wetland will stay open.
To get started in restoring and enhancing your wetlands, contact your local state or federal wildlife agency, or local Natural Resources Conservation Service office.
Trees and shrubs also provide excellent winter cover. You will often find a multitude of wildlife species around farmsteads and houses surrounded by shelterbelts. Trees and shrubs block wind, snow drifts, and provide loafing, roosting, and escape cover for pheasants. For maximum benefit, tree rows and shelterbelts must follow some basic rules.
- Trees and shrubs should not be planted in a prairie complex. Prairies are vital as nesting and brood rearing cover in the spring, and tree rows attract predators and perches for raptors.
- Tree and shrub plantings should consist of 15 rows at least 150 feet wide. Shrubs are planted on the outermost rows, with juniper/cedar, or blue spruce in the inner rows.
- 5 acres per every 100 acres is sufficient winter cover to get wildlife through the worst Mother Nature can dish out.
The Big Spur Blog is written by Jesse Beckers, Pheasants Forever’s Regional Wildlife Biologist for North Dakota.
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