I first started hunting pheasants when I was 12 years old, in 1973. I shot my first one in 1974. I remember exactly where that was. I’ve been a fanatic ever since. I would venture a guess that I’ve chased these roosters more than anyone else in the world!
The landscape was quite different then. Fencerows existed in every field. Corn was picked as often as it was shelled. Many corn stubble fields held lots of birds. Small swails were everywhere. Farmers simply farmed around these wet areas. Even the many stone piles that were overgrown with wild grape served as safety zones for pheasants. Farm fields had irregular borders and offered lots of “edge” habitat.
Today the landscape looks very different. Homes were built on just about every parcel I used to hunt. The small swails that often held some mallards has been drained forever. Some of the swails hold mature trees. The fencerows were torn out in favor of larger, blocky farm fields. Row crops are very free of any grasses or weeds. Every inch is plowed and planted up tight to the roads, woods, or ditches. Chisel plowing in the fall is the norm. The once great gamebird has gradually vanished. One cannot really blame any one thing in particular. Certainly the coyotes, foxes and red-tailed hawks seem to be thinning. Free roaming cats don’t help either.
So how is the greatest gamebird going to truly stage a comeback against ALL the odds?
Well, the answer is still anyone’s guess. It requires a landowner to optimize the property he/she owns and also getting others involved. Having spent most of my adult life refining and redefining what pheasants need to not only survive but thrive continues to be an evolving process. The equation is not one of a general conclusion, you know “wildlife need food, water, cover.” No kidding.
Today’s property owner turned habitat do-it-yourselfer has two basic limiting factors: time and equipment. Quality habitat takes time and planning. Your plan must gradually take shape. You need to observe the seasonal changes and decide what in the form of food or cover is severely negatively impacting your goal of perfecting a pheasant revival. No doubt that you will need to enlist adjacent landowners, farmers, friends and whomever else you can recruit. Quality habitat is time-consuming and costly. You MUST recruit every bit of help you can. You might very well benefit from helping out the farmer in his hour of need – cutting firewood, haying, picking up stones and in return he might let you use his big tractor and heavy disk when your zero hour is upon you next spring.
Perfect pheasant habitat involves a creative design where in you gradually piece together the concept of nesting cover, brood rearing, bug attracting, winter warmth, winter food carry-over, but most of all – safe travel corridors. For one thing – stop the mowing madness. If everyone that owned 10-20 acres stopped the “field of dreams” manicured lawn mowing it would be huge for wildlife. I know all of the arguments – it keeps the bugs down – REALLY? Plant some edge with a nice hedge of highbush cranberry, lilacs, and some spruce. Decrease your gas consumption and enjoy the view! Highbush cranberry is hands down – the single best habitat tool in your arsenal! These shrubs will grow anywhere in any soil. I am convinced they thrive on neglect. They will draw songbirds, gamebirds, deer and anything else in the dead of winter.
So what exactly is ideal habitat for pheasants?
Truthfully, the answer is best understood by looking all around the adjacent property. Is it idle grassland? I doubt it. Is it big woods? Row crops? Do you see many pheasants in the immediate area? Take into account that providing idle grassland for nesting is probably the single missing component in Michigan these days. Fields are never just left alone. Some government subsidized programs exist, I think the conservation movement is slowly changing due to the funding crisis our government has created. I’m sure you have read all of the articles that chronicle the dramatic drop in potential CRP acres and the impending doom to the wildlife that inhabit and procreate in these areas. With very small exceptions Michigan has not largely benefited from these programs. I know some USDA district conservationists that don’t bother to try and readily advance these programs in their area. I guess it creates more work for them? Like most large government programs it comes with a certain hitch that limits your choices in implementing what you may determine is best for your own property. Well, like me, you just do it because your own commitment to conservation is stronger than any Federal employee’s might be. Enough editorial. Whether it’s idle weed fields or establishing cool season Alfalfa or warm-season grasses, determine how much acreage you can devote to this and just DO IT!
Pheasants must have good winter food and cover and the very best is to plant a blend of sorghum and millets. Some of the varieties in a mix I designed over the course of 20 years are based from old varieties from a bygone era. Certainly soil matters here. These annual grain producing crops require good nutrition. If you have fertile soil some varieties will grow to ten feet tall. As the snow and wind push these over, they create hiding places so that birds can tuck themselves in when the thermometer drops to below zero. In my 30 year history of pheasants here in Michigan, this is the single most critical factor necessary to bring pheasants back.
I vehemently disagree with managers that advocate switchgrass. Yes, this stands somewhat up in the snow, but it contains no food. Many landowners I consult with that followed that program ten years ago are now trying to diversify these old switchgrass stands. The concept never really produced results for these landowners and trying to kill off these grasses is not very easy. Generally it takes years. Understand, I’m not saying that all switchgrass plantings are bad. Today, it is primarily used where the ground is wet and cannot sustain other types of plantings. It makes good sense to use this as an edge or border. A much better plan would incorporate a patchwork design of hedge rows next to nesting cover, and then continue to build more as time permits.
So what if you currently have great habitat in place but not a single pheasant living within your habitat – well, this is where some creativity and expense enter the picture. The concept of raise and release will definitely be a positive first step. This is also a huge bone of contention when this subject is brought up to wildlife managers. My beloved Pheasants Forever vehemently opposes any chapter monies being spent on live propagation plans. The Michigan DNR also adamantly opposes expenditures on raise and release programs. But I will tell you that a “soft release” program could revive your population. A landowner I have helped over the years began a release program after he had worked tirelessly for years to create the ideal habitat management on his property and he now has a steady population of wild birds. It’s not an end game – it’s a beginning. He utilized the self-contained model that allows the containment unit to be placed out in the actual habitat the birds hopefully will be released at. At about 8 weeks the door is opened and they gradually make their way out into their new home. Understand that mortality is high, but the mortality rate is also high in the wild. Isn’t that why many areas in the state simply have no more pheasants at all?
Just imagine if every stocking program ceased to be funded; walleye, salmon, and trout? The sport fishing community would be in an uproar! By today’s standards only about 100,000 pheasant hunters take to the fields. It is estimated that they harvest about 40,000 birds. That number I personally think is a “fuzzy math.” Compared to a harvest of about 1.5 million birds in South Dakota. I’ve learned over the last 30 years that other states do what is called a “slow-soft release! Where weather has had a negative impact the state agencies form a coalition of landowners, 4-H groups, etc. and allow for a release of wild strain stock to help artificially jump start the population again of course many would argue that this simply creates more game for the game bag. That is certainly true – to some extent. Hunting has never been proved to be the cause of extinction. You simply can’t kill them all. It’s the habitat programs that provide for the decision as to where and when to release.
If you, like me, began by hunting small game and you went out time after time and never even got the chance to fire your gun, would you be a diehard pheasant hunter? Economics plays a big role here. Millions of dollars leave the state so that upland hunters can pursue their passions where they at least will flush some birds. I think that current game managers need to re-think the current pheasant initiative. While serving with the Ingham Chapter of PF for 17 years, the chapter tirelessly supplied habitat seed rivaled by no other.
Another aspect never discussed today as it pertains to pheasants is woodlot management. When I was a youth hunting swails was a hot-spot. Today’s landscape now has those swails overgrown with 30” diameter cotton woods. Box elder trees are found on what’s left of those old farm lanes that used to have Mulberry trees and wild raspberry. Gone are those precious fencerows and swails. There is no market for those softwood trees either. I’m told by one expert in the paper industry that there isn’t a single pulp wood mill left in the Lower Peninsula. Most paper mills recycle today, so there is no need for pulp wood. Many farm fields are
bordered by these over mature woodlots and that is not exactly pheasant habitat. I’m not sure what the answer is for this problem. We would potentially cut and chip this junk wood to burn in a facility to generate electricity. They do this in the U.P. mills.
Some landowners do, in fact, choose to cut and simply pile or burn this unwanted vegetation. There is the tremendous new growth and the thickets this produces are great habitat for a variety of edge loving wildlife.