MARSHALL – How much grass is needed on the landscape to produce the pheasant numbers we want?
It depends on the quality of that habitat, and where we place it.
If done right, a landscape with 25 to 30 percent devoted to grass will provide the “best bang for our buck,’’ according to Nicole Davros, a wildlife biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource.
Davros spoke last weekend at the Governor’s Pheasant Summer. She is part of the DNR’s Farmland Wildlife Research Group. Her research focuses on pheasants and grassland habitat management and agricultural land use practices.
“We’re not asking to put grass everywhere,’’ said Davros. “We’re just asking for a small piece of it.’’
She said research by Kurt Haroldson, associate regional manager with the DNR in New Ulm, and others has shown a direct relationship between bird numbers and the amount of habitat. A landscape with five percent of the area devoted to grassland will produce about 30 birds per square mile.
A landscape with 25 percent of the area to grass will produce five times as many pheasants, or about 160 birds.
The best benefits are realized when there is a mosaic of habitat types on a landscape. Providing a mix of wetlands, buffer and filter strips and protected prairie that can meet the nesting and winter cover needs of pheasants works better than simply plunking a 40-acre grassland in the middle of row-crop acres.
Nesting and winter cover areas are crucial. For nesting, pheasants need a grass area that remains undisturbed for six weeks. It provides the hen the time needed to lay and incubate the eggs.
Quality matters: An area offering brood cover will ideally include forbs mixed with grasses. The forbs provide an understory where chicks can feed on insects and scurry to mom when there’s danger.
Winter cover must provide protection from the elements and access to food. Pheasants do not have feathered legs or other adaptations that allow native species such as grouse to survive a Minnesota winter. Pheasants need thermal cover- such as provided by cattail sloughs- to stay warm when winter is at its worst.
Winter cover should also be large enough so that it does not drift in completely with snow.
Winter cover should be in proximity to food for one simple reason.
“In winter, if birds move more than half a mile they’ve moved pretty far,’’ said Davros.
Davros cautioned against any type of woody cover. While a shelter belt can offer some winter cover, trees provide a place for raptors to perch and for raccoons to gain a view of where their next meal will be found.
Pheasant numbers are declining in Minnesota as Conservation Reserve Program acres are returned to row crop production. The state has lost 490,000 acres of grassland since 2007 due to non-renewals of CRP contracts, according to information from the DNR.
Minnesota’s pheasant harvest fell to 169,000 roosters last year, compared to 655,000 harvested in 2007.
“We know that what is happening to our pheasant population is also happening to our other grassland wildlife,’’ said Davros of the consequences of habitat loss. While pheasants are a non-native species, Davros said she has no hesitation in defending the importance of providing the habitat they need.
“(When) we’re working for habitat conservation for pheasants, we know we are protecting all the other wildlife that use our grasslands,’’ she said.