Throughout the pheasant range, nesting cover is the single most important limiting factor for wildlife populations. Thankfully, it remains one of the few factors we can directly impact by establishing the right vegetation and managing it correctly. Hen pheasants start nesting beginning in April within residual vegetation from the previous year and conclude by mid-July. It is during this time pheasants need secure and undisturbed cover.
Pheasants live out their lives within a home range of about one square mile, requiring all habitat components (nesting cover, brood habitat, winter cover and food) to be in close proximity. Ideally, 30-60 acres, or about 5-10% of this range should be nesting cover. Larger blocks of cover are preferable to narrow linear strips. However, linear cover, like waterways, roadsides, and field borders, is important to wildlife on a landscape level.
Providing proper nest cover should be the cornerstone of all pheasant management plans. Establishing nesting cover requires land, funds, and manpower. Consult with a Pheasants Forever chapter if you have questions about grass seed mixes or other nest cover concerns.
Cool-season (non-native) grasses like timothy, orchardgrass and tall or intermediate wheatgrass begin growth in the cool, spring months. They reach maturity by early summer and then become dormant until cooler fall temperatures stimulate growth again. Cool-season grasses are generally easier to establish, cost less, but require more intensive management to retain their productivity. Single species stands of cool-season grasses are of little or no value to nesting pheasants.
To realize their potential as nesting cover, cool season grasses need to be mixed with legumes such as alfalfa, alsike, and red or sweet clover. Even with maintenance, most cool-season grass stands must eventually be replanted because the legumes are out-competed by the grass and eventually die.
Warm-season (native) grasses such as indiangrass, switchgrass, big and little bluestem begin growth much later in the spring, reaching full maturity in late summer or early fall. Warm-season grasses produce high quality cover when cool-season grasses lie dormant. If left undisturbed, these grasses may provide good winter habitat and residual nesting cover for the following spring. Warm-season grasses are generally more difficult and costly to establish, but are easier to manage. Typical management includes controlled burning on a 3-5 year rotation.
Single grass stands may be easier to plant; however, mixed stands of cool or warm season grasses complemented with forbs will provide greater diversity and consequently be more attractive to wildlife. Interseeding legumes or planting separate plots of cool-season and warm-season grasses can also improve nesting and brood-rearing cover.
The wildlife value of grasses generally declines as vegetation ages, and the vigor of the cover is diminished. It is for this reason that managing nesting cover is usually more important than what species you choose to plant.
Controlled burning (in early spring) is a critical tool in the management of grasses. Woody plants and other unwanted vegetation can be eliminated by proper use of fire. Burning also releases the nutrients bound in the plant litter, stimulating vigorous new growth following the burn. Burning can be very dangerous if not done properly as grasses produce extremely hot fires that spread rapidly.
Mowing of any type of cover (for haying, weed or brush control) should be delayed until after the nesting season has concluded (mid-July). In newly established areas, mowing the first year is a good idea if weed competition is severe. After cover is established, mowing segments of a field on a 3-4 year rotation will keep the vegetation rejuvenated. Leave 10-12 inches of cover after the last cutting, particularly with warm-season grasses. This is a sufficient height to provide some residual cover for nesting and to protect plant vigor.
Light mechanical discing in the early spring can also restore plant vigor by opening up a stand of grass and reducing the effects of crowded root systems. This practice is more attractive for wildlife because it effectively increases diversity by creating a seed bed for annual herbaceous plants.
Various federal, state and private conservation programs may help defray some of the cost of establishing nest cover. Contact your county USDA Farm Service Agency office, state wildlife agency or local Pheasants Forever chapter to start. These same agencies oftentimes rent specialized planting and maintenance equipment. Habitat design assistance is available from state wildlife agencies, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or your PF regional biologist.
There are many good types of nesting cover. A simple field exercise to test the adequacy of your nest cover would be to throw a football 20 feet into your habitat. If it disappears and there are several species of grasses and forbs around the ball, you likely have adequate cover. Conduct this test in mid-April and then monitor the field to ensure there is no disturbance for the next 3 months. Finally, remember that nesting cover is dynamic. If the cover looks great this year, chances are it won't look that good in 2 years. Plan ahead to manage grass cover successfully. In all likelihood, it is the very best thing you can do for pheasants in your area.
Then try the Pheasants Forever Essential Habitat Guide - a handy reference on all kinds of pheasant cover, including shelterbelts, food plots and nest cover. And, be sure to check with your local Pheasants Forever chapter, where you will find cost sharing, planting assistance, or just advice from a friendly chapter volunteer.