A Year in the Life of a Pheasant
You can follow the life of a pheasant for a whole year by clicking on the links below. Find out what they are eating, where they are living and their habitat requirements.
By Ken Solomon
"January, The Coldest Month"
January is the coldest month of the year. Day and night temperatures are often colder than most home freezers. A 2°F night with even a moderate wind of 11 mph creates a wind-chill of -25°F. How can pheasants survive such conditions? While you can wear another wool scarf or down vest, the pheasant has only the clothes it grew last July. In October it could ruffle its feathers for more insulation, but that's not enough now. The answer to staying alive in January is food, habitat, and even when the bird was hatched last spring. Under severe winter conditions, an early hatched hen (May) can survive two days longer than a late hatched hen (July). The hen hatched in May will be larger and have more body fat on which to survive. Each pheasant must increase its energy intake to offset the increased loss of body heat, and to maintain its 108°F temperature. In January the bird needs 504 kcal/day for warmth and weight gain. This mid-winter dietary requirement is equal to two McDonald's hamburgers or three Snickers candy bars a day. This is nearly double that needed last October when ruffled feathers were sufficient for warmth.
"January Weight Changes"
Most experts agree that pheasants increase weight from September through December, but disagree if weight continues to increase through January and February. Whether they do or do not depends on weather conditions. The amount of energy available for fat production, or weight gain, is determined by outside temperatures. A harsh January can stop fat production, and cause existing fat and muscle tissue to be used for warmth ... with a corresponding weight loss. With normal January weather, hens will stop producing fat, and use what they eat for warmth, without using existing fat or muscle. In this situation, the hen will hover around 2.4 lbs. If mild conditions exist in January, part of her diet can be used to make body fat and increase weight. Depending on conditions, fat in January can be more than double that of December.
Where can a pheasant find the 504 kcal of energy needed each day to prevent starvation? During midwinter, corn constitutes up to 77 percent of the pheasant's diet. Corn contains more metabolizable energy (3.43 kcal/gm) than most other food items. Nearly 90 percent of their diet is commercial grains, 6 percent plant foliage, and 4 percent weed seeds. Trace amounts of insect parts are also found in their daily food intake. Birds can dig food in snow up to 3 to 4 inches deep. A thin quarter inch of ice can create problems if it doesn't melt within a few days. Since hens are not as strong as roosters, hens have more difficulty digging through ice or snow for food. And if snow and/or ice has left only a few areas open for the birds, roosters will take over the area by chasing away any hens. No wonder that during winter more hens die than roosters.
"During A Blizzard"
With the first deep snow or ice storm, people start to worry about the pheasants starving. Death due to starving during inclement weather is extremely rare if they have adequate winter habitat. The worst storms last only two or three days, and pheasants are quite comfortable spending three days without feeding. Let's say the birds have just finished breakfast when a blizzard hits with its snow and chilling winds. The birds immediately go to heavy grass cover to wait out the storm. Some people believe the pheasant, like other birds, sense the coming storm and will feed more heavily before finding cover. Once in protective cover, all the food they have eaten will be utilized in three to four hours. Then they must start using body fat to keep warm. Fat constitutes more than 13 percent of a pheasant's January weight. This equates to 142 grams or 992 kcal of usable energy. This is enough to support a non-feeding pheasant two to three days. If needed, muscle tissue could then be burned for warmth for another 10 days. Fortunately most blizzards do not last more than a couple days, so the birds can leave muscle tissue alone. The first blizzard is the easiest to survive, while each subsequent storm finds birds with less fat and in poorer physical condition.
"After A Blizzard"
Death due to starvation after a blizzard is more likely than during a blizzard, but still rare if birds have protective cover. Pheasants can survive up to two weeks, even if all food sources are covered by deep snow and/or ice. Without any available food, a January rooster can survive 19 days and hens 16 days. These survival days will of course decrease with colder temperatures. Once fat reserves are gone, muscle tissue can be used for warmth. Pheasants die when they reach 60 percent of their normal body weight. A 2.4 lbs hen will die at 1.4 lbs. Even if the snow clears from the food supplies after one week, the hen's deteriorated body condition may bring quick death if another blizzard comes too soon. But when is snow depth ever uniform from field to field, or when does the ice sheet last more than a few days? Not often! The same endless winds which can drive the wind-chill to -70°F can also be a blessing. While the wind piles snow in one area, it blows many farm fields free of snow and uncovers areas where pheasants can feed.
Many people prefer the mild taste of the pheasant's light colored meat to the strong taste of a duck's dark meat. Why is there a difference in color? Color depends on the amount of work that a muscle has to perform. The hard working muscles are the darkest colored. Hard working muscles need more blood to deliver energy to the working cells, and to remove the CO2 and heat produced while metabolizing that energy. So more blood makes the muscle darker. Since duck muscles do more work (long migration routes) than pheasant muscles, duck meat is darker and stronger tasting. Even within ducks, those that migrate each year have darker meat than domestic, non-migrating ducks. In many birds like the pheasant and chicken, the leg muscles are dark meat while the breast is white. The legs do more work than the breast (flight) muscles. Hunters know that pheasants do more running than flying, and commercially raised chickens do no flying. Consider also the animals with red meat. The slow, sedate cow has lighter colored meat than the fleet-footed, energetic deer.
Does the winter cover you now provide pheasants insure equal survival for roosters, young, and hens? No! As winter cover, your house insures that you, children, and spouse have equal chances to survive winter. As winter cover, your brushy draw provides equal protection to roosters, young, and hens, but more hens will die. Because the hen is smaller than the rooster, she losses body heat faster, she carries less fat, she can not survive as long in a blizzard, she can not dig as easily through ice and snow for food, and she can not defend the food from bully roosters. So more hens then roosters die each winter. As winter cover, your brushy draw also provides equal protection to the youngest and the oldest of the juvenile birds, but survival is different. The chick hatched in early June has a much better chance of surviving this winter in your brushy draw than the chick hatched in July ... the July chick better than the August chick .. and August better than September. The later a chick hatches, the less time it has to reach adult body size and body fat content before winter hits. Having less fat, the younger of the juvenile birds die first.
Pheasants use woody cover throughout the year. 1) Of the pheasants' nests, 3.5 percent are found in shelterbelts. The success of these nests may not be high because the long narrow belts aid in predation. High nesting use of shelterbelts may indicate a lack of preferred cover types. 2) The summer shade provided to chicks and adults by woody cover may be more important than the cover's winter benefits. 3) Most importantly, woody cover is winter protection. It provides daytime protection from predators, and saves pheasants 28 percent in metabolic needs. It also provides protection from cold 14-hour winter nights when normal roosting cover is filled with snow. Trees and shrubs also provide pheasants with emergency winter food.
Problems exist with shelterbelt design. Shelterbelts planted after the dirty thirties were designed for soil protection. And a 1-6 row belt can be a death trap as it provides no snow free area, and can bury birds in a blizzard. Today's shelterbelts are planted for certain "porosity values" to better distribute snow across the fields. Such open cover provides nothing for the pheasant.
Many states use a Hunter Survey Questionnaire to help them better manage small game populations. The survey gathers hunting activity and game-kill information on pheasants, grouse, partridge, quail, and waterfowl. Surveys are mailed this time of year to a statistical sample of hunter (not all hunters). Some states contact these hunters before the fall hunting seasons, and ask them to keep records of hours hunted and animals harvested. Knowing how many pheasant hunting licenses were sold last fall, and knowing from the questionnaire the average number of birds harvested per hunter, the state can estimate the total pheasant harvest. This can then be compared to similar information of past years to help evaluate the effects of weather, cover quality, hunting pressure, and bag limits on the number of pheasants harvested. The number of pheasants harvested generally follows the same pattern of pheasant abundance. More birds bring out more hunters to harvest more birds. South Dakota harvested 7.5 million birds in 1945 with the population at its highest and only 0.3 million in 1976 with the population at its lowest.
Game managers often used the term "carrying capacity" when speaking of pheasant populations and their habitat. The pheasant carrying capacity of an area is determined by whatever factor(s) is in shortest supply. If winter cover and food are plentiful in an area, but there is little nesting cover, the way to increase the area's carrying capacity is to establish more nesting cover. Or to have much nesting cover, as with the current federal CRP program, and little winter cover, lowers the carrying capacity - producing more birds in the spring to only have them die next winter.
Carrying capacity does not remain static from year to year. Even when the habitat is left undisturbed, and farming practices remain the same, carrying capacity of the habitat changes. A new planting of nesting cover does age, and its desirability to nesting hens changes. There is essentially no nesting-use the first year, with each additional year seeing more and more hens nesting in it. This increase continues to a peak in the 5th or 6th year. Then the quality of the cover decreases, and so does nesting-use. So the carrying capacity increases then decreases with time.
During the coldest month of the year, January, pheasants require twice the energy they burned in October. Yet with adequate habitat their body fat content can be at its highest in January. Pheasant bioenergetics requires that the birds have three cover types to help survive the coldest of winters. The cover types are roosting, loafing, and food cover. Winter habitat includes grass cover for roosting at night, trees and shrubs to loaf in during the day, and food.
The purpose of each is to reduce the pheasants' vulnerability to predators, to reduce the birds' energy requirements, and to increase the body fat content of hens for spring nesting. For each 160 acres, 5 should be set aside to provide these covers. The relationship of theses covers to each other is also important. Ideally, each cover requirement should be located next to the other, or at most one quarter mile apart.
Where do pheasants sleep in winter? Good roosting cover consists of idle vegetation that provides low, dense, insulating cover. The pasture, hay land, or wetland that was not cut or grazed last summer will be good roosting cover. As will be wheat stubble, if not tilled last fall. The forage sorghum not bailed or grazed is good for roosting at night and for loafing during the day. The best sleeping cover is the nesting cover planted last spring. Ten to 20 acres of roosting cover per section will provide the cover needed by your pheasants.
Good roosting cover provides insulation and protection from predators. First consider that a 0°F night temperature with a 20 mph wind creates a -39°F wind-chill. The 0°F in idle grass cover will require the bird to burn 25% less energy than at -39°F outside the cover. Second, consider that roosting cover provides easy escape from predators. If threatened by a fox, skunk, or raccoon, birds can flush upward without tree limbs or shrubs to hinder escape. One hour before sunrise, birds move to tree/shrub cover for protection from aerial predators.
Before sunrise, pheasants will move from their night roosts to tree/shrub cover for protection from aerial predators, and for weather protection. In this loafing cover, "under story" is the key. With grazing, there is no under story to stop the 20 mph wind, and blowing snow.
The best loafing cover contains shrubs with low growing trees (Russian olive, junipers, ash). Pheasants will consume shrub fruits during the summer and fall, but during winter shrubs provide mainly cover. Besides, the pheasant is an agricultural bird and would rather have a commercial grain for their winter diet. Shrub thickets though need protection where blowing snow can totally fill them. Two double rows of cedars planted 30 to 60 feet apart to the windward side of the thicket will catch most of the winter's snow. Shelterbelts ... the Dakotas need a minimum of 12 rows, Nebraska 8 rows, and Kansas 4 rows. Stay away from planting pines. While for the first years they do provide cover close to the ground, the cover eventually moves upward.
When thinking of loafing cover many people think only of shelterbelts. But what of that brushy draw or plum thicket? Both are good cover if they are not currently grazed. Consider fencing a portion of that draw, being sure to include an acre of grassland for each acre of shrubs, the grass re-growth will provide pheasants both the night roosting cover and the day loafing cover they require. It is important that the two types of cover are located next to each other. In new shelterbelt plantings or renovations, be sure to include cedars and junipers. These dark colored trees can act as solar collectors, and raise the temperature within the tree/shrub planting by 5°F. This equates to the pheasant needing 5% less energy to survive the day. Add this savings to the 25% saved by the shrubs stopping the blowing wind. The hen can survive to spring with 30 percent more body fat. And more fat means healthier hens, eggs and chicks.
The purpose of a food plot is to keep the hen fat through the winter. The pheasant is an agricultural bird, and prefers the commercial grains left waste after harvest or left unharvested. In South Dakota (average January night temperature is -1°F), the January diet consists of 90 percent commercial grains, with 77 percent being corn. Where winter conditions are mild, and energy requirements less, pheasants can survive on native forbs and shrubs.
Changes in farming practices and farm machinery over the last 40 years have greatly decreased the amount of waste grain in harvested fields. There is still some grain to be had by pheasants, but it lays on the ground subject to rotting, subject to disking, subject to snow or ice cover, and more available to rodents. Standing plots of corn, sunflower, or grain sorghum, provide food above the snow and ice. A two acre food plot in each 160 acres would increase the winter survival of hens, and help them produce more numerous and healthy eggs next spring.
By Ken Solomon
The major cause of pheasant winter mortality is not starvation. It is freezing. The pheasant's physiological processes can produce only so much heat. As temperatures drop, more and more body heat is lost to the surrounding air. At some temperature, called the "lower critical temperature," more heat is lost than can be produced, and the bird freezes. Other than being frozen, the bird is good body condition. Whether a well fed pheasant freezes at -20°F or 0°F is unknown, but -50°F would freeze any pheasant. It is not uncommon to have numerous days of below zero temperatures (and even lower windchills) in the northern states.
So why don't all pheasants freeze each winter? They would if it were not for one factor, winter habitat. The insulating effect of habitat moderates windchills, thus providing a warmer and less energydemanding microclimate for the birds. With the existing winter habitat in your area, only 30 to 50 percent of your birds will survive this winter. If you establish more winter habitat, more birds will survive.
A pheasant's typical winter day goes like this. If available, the pheasant will spend its nights in grassy cover or wetlands (called roosting cover). An hour or so before sunrise he will leave the grass and head for shrub cover for protection from aerial predators (loafing cover). Here he will be joined by other roosters before venturing out to feed. About 30 minutes before sunrise, he and friends move out to feed in harvested grain fields or, better yet, unharvested food plots (feeding cover). Pheasants prefer to feed in areas within 300 yards of the loafing cover, but will venture longer distances to find food. Unfortunately, longer trips to feeding areas require more energy to be wasted finding the food. The pheasant will make numerous trips between the shrub and food cover all day. He will use the solarcollector properties of good loafing cover to bask in the sun, avoid predators, and moderate his energy needs. His last feeding trip may last up to an hour after sunset, as he prepares for the long 16-hour night. Depending on how late it is, he will either visit the loafing cover once more or go directly to bed in the roosting cover.
"Grass Cover and Shrub Cover"
Pheasants will spend their winter nights roosting in grass cover or wetlands. The dead grass of roosting cover makes a nice insulated bed which protects the birds from the wind. While the temperature near their beds may be 0°F, the 20 mph wind three feet above their heads produces a -39°F windchill. To survive the 0°F in the grass, the pheasants must use 22.42 kcal of energy each hour. Without the grass cover, the pheasants need 28.01 kcal each hour to survive the -39°F. That is an increased metabolic need of 25 percent without the grass cover. It is difficult enough trying to survive a 16-hour night without also having to burn 25 percent more energy to do it.
The use of shelterbelts and woody draws as loafing cover provides even greater energy benefits than roosting cover. Not only does a well designed tree belt negate the energy costs of windchill, it produces a warmer temperature inside the belt than outside the belt. With the still air inside a belt and the solar collection ability of dark colored conifers, the temperature within a belt can be 5°F warmer than the surrounding air. In such a belt, pheasants can survive with 3 percent less energy.
Winter habitat includes grass cover for roosting at night, trees and shrubs to loaf in during the day, and food. Ideally, these should be located next to each other, or at most one quarter mile apart. A Kansas study found that food plots left for bobwhite quail increased the quail's energy intake and helped maintain a higher body weight and fat content. The better body condition of quail within 600 yards of the food plot enables them to survive a blizzard six days longer than quail farther then 600 yards from the plots. We can assume the same is true for pheasants.
Changes in farming practices and farm machinery over the last 40 years have greatly decreased the amount of waste grain in harvested fields. Sure there is still some grain to be had by pheasants, but it lays on the ground subject to rotting, subject to disking, subject to snow or ice cover, and more available to rodents. Standing plots of corn, sunflower, or grain sorghum, provide food above the snow and ice. A two acre food plot in each 160 acres would increase the winter survival of hens, and help them produce more numerous and healthy eggs next spring.
"Looking To Spring"
With the strong winds, snow and cold temperatures of January and February, the big, strong, bold, and independent rooster must use all his cunning and resources to ensure survival. While struggling one day to the next, he already has his eye on spring. By mid-February his testes begin enlarging, and motile sperm can be found in all parts of his reproductive system. Growth of the testes is slower and begins one month earlier than growth of the hen's ovary. Spring is coming.
"Pheasants Impact Other Game Birds?"
Do pheasants impact other game birds? Managers have expressed concern that pheasants might harm other farmland and prairie game birds. There is circumstantial evidence that pheasants can impact other bird populations, but the jury is still deliberating. Gray partridge, prairie-chickens, and other species may be affected through food competition, habitat competition, nest parasitism, diseases, and behavior (Kimmel 88).
Food Competition - Generally, in Mother Nature's plan, birds of different sizes eat foods of different sizes. And birds of same size and food requirements occupy different geographic areas, so as not to compete for the same foods. Not always true with pheasants. Diets of the larger pheasant overlap those of the smaller gray partridge, and may be a competitive factor during winter. The same sized prairiechicken typifies grassland prairies, while the pheasant is found in farmland habits. In areas where the two populations merge though, food competition exists. It is doubtful that one bird out competes the other. Instead, both may be equally limited by the limited food supply.
Do pheasants compete with other game birds for habitat? In areas where game bird ranges overlap; there is probably competition for limited resources. But is the competition life threatening? In 1945, Wisconsin claimed competition when noting that bobwhite quail numbers were lower in winter habitat when pheasants were present. Did this increase the quails' mortality rate, or did they just move to other areas? Other reports note "possible competition" with gray partridge for roosting, feeding, and nesting habitat, and for insects. A Minnesota report hit the nail more squarely on the head when it stated that partridge/pheasant competition occurred where habitat was limited. Adequate habitat lessens competition.
The potential for habitat competition with prairie grouse is even more unclear. While Nebraska reported competition for food, another noted that while the two do rely on the same foods, competition in not significant. Central Europe did note a "significant retreat" of black grouse because of "possible" competition with pheasants.
January and February are the coldest months of the year. Do your pheasants have good woody cover to find shelter from the windchill? In the Midwest and west, shelterbelts are warmth for the birds and for you in winter. Research has shown that 92 different bird species use shelterbelt habitat in the summer, and have documented nest densities as high as 17 nests/acre. In areas of intensive agriculture when habitat is scarce, shelterbelts can play an important role during spring and fall migration of song birds. A good belt provides loafing, feeding, roosting and escape cover for pheasants. Shelterbelts can cut winter heating bills as much as 30%. This can be substantial savings to the farmer with today's rising energy costs. Shelterbelts reduce windchills for both the birds and your livestock. Cattle and pheasants require less feed to maintain body weight. Well placed shelterbelts can efficiently spread snow across fields improving spring soil moisture, and can effectively protect buildings and roadways from drifting snow (Nebraska's living snow fences). Trees can conserve soil by slowing wind erosion. One tree removes 13 pounds of CO2 a year.
Do your pheasants have good woody cover to find shelter from the windchill? To be of benefit, shelterbelts must be designed well. Four design factors are snow catch, height of the lift trees, number of evergreen rows, and belt width. A good belt will stop all drifting snow without burying the inner rows of trees. This can be done with 2 dense shrub rows 30 to 50 feet windward of the belt. The 30 to 50 feet can be used for a food plot. Tall trees can reduce wind speeds for 20 times their height to provide protection for pheasants and farmstead. If the purpose of your belt is primarily wildlife protection, consider not planting any tall deciduous trees in which hawks and owls could perch. The inner portion of the belt should contain 4 rows of cedars to slow breezes within the belt and to provide a little solar collection. On sunny winter days, the temperature around the dark colored cedars is warmer than surrounding air, thus saving some of the hen's fat reserves. Width? Depends on your winters! The frigid blowing snows of the Dakotas require a belt of 12 to 15 rows, while 4 rows are adequate in temperate Kansas.
"Establishing a Shelterbelt"
Do your pheasants have good woody cover to find shelter from the windchill? How you plant the shelterbelt will determine your success and the pheasants' survival. When selecting shrub and tree species suitable for your planting; contact a local wildlife or forestry professional. Plants must be matched with local conditions, including soil types, specific site problems, and climate. Select at least 6 and preferably 8 tree and shrub species. Remember, a shelterbelt with an array of plant species will attract a greater variety of wildlife and have a better chance of surviving a wide range of environmental conditions.
One of the most important factors in establishing a shelterbelt is proper seedbed preparation. Summer fallowing or maintaining the land in a cultivated crop, the year before will help produce a weed free, loose bed. Grass or existing alfalfa fields are poor choices unless the soil has been plowed and disked at least one year prior to planting. Just prior to planting, apply a pre-emergent herbicide specifically approved for the tree species to be planted.
Do your pheasants have good woody cover to find shelter from the windchill? They will if you maintain your new shelterbelt properly. Weed control! The most important weed to control is grass. More specifically, sod forming grasses like bluegrass, brome or fescue must be eliminated. Good control of grasses and other weeds can cut the time it takes seedlings to reach maturity by 50%. Control for how long? Depends on your available moisture. The less moisture your area receives, the longer you must cultivate. Minimum for most trees is 4 years, and for shrubs 2 years. For dry land sites in the West and Great Plains area this will mean keeping the entire area between tree rows weed-free. In the Midwest and East, this means a four-foot weed-free zone around the plants.
Mowing in the fall helps to reduce cover for rodents which may girdle or cut off trees. Mulching can control weeds and reduce moisture loss, but it can be expensive and labor intensive. New effective mulch is fiber matting, which protects more than 5 years. Herbicides control weeds effectively when applied in proper amounts at the right time. Or as a farmer friend said, "Mechanical cultivation uses no toxic chemicals and is cheaper than other methods."
By Ken Solomon
"Maintenance vs. Productive Energy"
With the cold winter months of January and February gone, the pheasant may breathe a sigh of relief with March's warmer temperatures. In fact the birds need 34 percent less energy (metabolizable energy) to survive in March than in January. This is largely due to the fact that increasing day temperatures are approaching the lower end of the bird's thermoneutral zone. Within this temperature zone, the pheasant need not use energy to stay warm. The bird can keep warm by simply ruffling his feathers to increase their insulation value. The pheasant's metabolizable energy (what it needs to eat and digest) is the sum of its maintenance energy and its productive energy needs. In January most of the bird's energy is maintenance energy as he tries to stay warm. Warmer temperatures in March and April allow more of what the bird eats to be used for production energy.
"First Signs of Spring"
Evidence of the upcoming reproductive season may be seen when the birds are still in their winter flocks. The first visible sign of sexual development is the enlarging wattles on the rooster's head. The testicles also begin to enlarge about the first of March. The usual March blizzard, or colder-than-average-March temperatures, will not slow the development of the testicles. Their growth requires only a small portion of the rooster's productive energy, 0.23 kcal per day, or less than one percent of the rooster's total energy needs. Severe cold weather in March may cause the rooster to lose body weight, but will not slow testicle growth.....to be able to breed this spring is most important.
Feeling the urges of spring, the rooster is no longer content to be crowded with other roosters. In late March the rooster flocks and the hen flocks break up, and birds scatter. A rooster may move up to 10 miles from his winter area, but generally moves less than 2 miles. An adult rooster moves the least distance, while the juvenile hen the greatest distance. Such varied distances spread the birds into all possible nesting areas.
"Rooster and Hen Weights"
When the flocks break up in March, the rooster is at his maximum weight of the year (1400 gm, 3.1 lbs). During a normal winter, he will gain weight through the winter to the March maximum. January and February temperatures though will determine if the rooster gains or loses weight during these months. The rooster will definitely begin losing weight in April as he displays to hens, fights other roosters, crows, and begins mating.
As with the rooster, the hen's weight may increase or decrease in January and February (averages 1090 gm) depending on temperatures. Unlike a rooster that reaches maximum weight in March, the hen gains weight through April (1134 gm, 2.5 lbs). The hen has 30 extra days over the rooster to prepare for raising a family.
The rooster's thoughts are turning towards spring. In March he begins crowing in earnest. He will stand with head held high, chest out, and wings flapping. He wants to entice hens and to establish a territory. The hens will pay him no attention until April, when she is will be ready to mate. His crowing activity will reach a maximum in late April, early May. Crowing activity starts well before sunrise, increases to a peak just before sunrise, then diminishes. The average roster will crow every two minutes.
Crowing roosters may be heard throughout the day, but mid-day is usually quiet. There is a flurry of crowing late afternoon and early evening, but it is not nearly as active as the sunrise activity. Many state game agencies monitor the number of crowing roosters each year to calculate a breeding population index.
"How Much Agriculture?"
The pheasant, an agricultural bird, likes grain farms that provide winter feed. When farming intensity increases, bird numbers decrease. At what intensity? Illinois noted a 30% increase in row crop acres from 1962-72, and a corresponding decrease in pheasants. South Dakota (SD) though, during the same years, noted a similar decrease in birds yet row crops actually declined 10%. SD noted that 50 years of increasing cattle numbers, along with an increase of grassland and alfalfa acres, contributed to their bird loss. More alfalfa meant more nests destroyed during mowing. Iowa (IA) though, with similar bird declines, found pasture acres decreasing and hay land acres remaining constant.
What is the answer? Nearly all states agree that farm size is the most important factor. SD saw a doubling of farm size from 1925-75. IA noted that with fewer farmsteads there is less winter cover. With larger fields, nesting decreases. Hens prefer to nest in 20-acre fields. Larger farms require larger, more efficient equipment. Harvesting machines that waste less grain leave less winter food. Larger fields are more easily treated chemically than mechanically. And chemicals effect chick survival.
"Late Maturing Alfalfa"
Do you have to replant or start an alfalfa field this spring? Consider planting a variety that matures a week or two later than usual. Why? Consider that alfalfa reaches peak nutritional value just prior to most hens hatching their nests. Alfalfa is the first, lush, green growth each spring, and hens will concentrate their nests in alfalfa fields. Unfortunately, up to 70% of the nests and 50% of the hens will be destroyed by the swather. If that alfalfa field matured a week after the peak pheasant hatch, its chick production would triple.
South Dakota State University found a couple pounds of an old-time alfalfa variety saved by a seed-savers-bank. The few pounds will be grown in California to provide enough seed to evaluate its potential for farmer and pheasants. Once sufficient seed is available, test plots will be established to evaluate nutritional valve and growth habits. It supposedly has the same initial rush of early spring growth as modern varieties, which would serve to attract the hens. First cutting also produces the same tonnage per acre. Seed production though is less. Evaluation is also needed to determine total production with numerous cuttings.
"Can't Age That Rooster"
February was the last month, since the embryo was put into the egg shell last spring, that you can determine a pheasant's age. So, if you find a road killed rooster in March there is no simple way to age it. Pheasants, even when developing in the egg, can be aged by days of development. Hatched chicks can be aged (in weeks) by comparing their body size to their hen's size. Young birds can also be aged from time of hatching through 25 weeks (November), using flight feather growth. When young birds are between 25 weeks (December) and 35 weeks old (February), you can only say if it is a young bird or an adult, by using the bursa length. From February to June, professional game managers can distinguish between young and adults by using a complicated relationship of the shortest flight feather shaft diameter to its length. After pheasants reach 12 months old (June), it can not be determined if they are 1, 2, or 3 years old.
What is the preferred grass of nesting pheasants? Who knows? Often what grass works in your state does not grow well in another state, so the hen uses a different grass in that other state. But whether a hen uses brome, wheatgrass, timothy, fescue, switch grass, or native grasses is determined by the grass's growth habits. Hens would rather nest in fields that were not cut or grazed the previous year. They prefer a grass that can stand the winter snows well. In spring, hens actively seek idle grassy fields where the grass has not been crunched by snow. Sod grasses are often chosen over bunch grasses. Grasses that quickly (2-3 years) form a thick (2-3 inches) layer of dead litter will not be as attractive to hens as grasses that form the layer slowly (5-6 years). More hens will nest in a square field than in a rectangular field, and prefer a 20-acre field to anything smaller or larger.
"Feeders vs. Food Plots"
While both food plots and pheasant feeders have a place in keeping that hen fat through the winter cold, food plots are preferred. Feeders will concentrate a large number of birds in a very small area. This makes hunting easier for predators, and may assist the spread of diseases. Whereas a food plot will spread the birds over a larger area. If well designed, a food plot also provides good cover from winter winds and predators. Sometimes birds will choose good winter shrub cover that is not near any crop land or food, so a feeder is needed. Be sure to place the feeder within the shrub cover for protection from predators, and to carefully place it so as not to get covered with snow. Remember to fill the feeder repeatedly, as once birds start relying on your manual labor, you can not stop ... and with deep snow it is manual labor.
What can pheasants be eating this time of year? It has been 6 months since last fall's crop harvest. A new crop of weed seeds won't be available for 4 or 5 months. Juicy insects are still 2 to 3 months away. Is there anything out there to eat? Obviously there is or your birds would be dead now. The pheasant is an agricultural bird, and even at this barren time of year, they still show a preference for farm crops. In March, over 80% of their diet is farm crops, with corn being number one. Less corn is consumed now than was during last year's corn harvest (Oct-Dec), but the difference is made up by increased consumption of wheat, barley, and oats. This change to small grains is probably due to less corn being available, and the birds having to eat the less desirable small grain seeds. In March only a small part (2%, compared to October's 17%) of the pheasant's diet is weed seeds. Insects make up 4% (lowest of the year), consisting mainly of grasshopper parts and eggs. Green plants comprise 8% of their food (highest for the year). Do the plants provide elements essential to the upcoming breeding season, or are they just to keep the bird full until other foods are available? Unknown!
By Ken Solomon
"Gearing Up For Spring"
In April the hen's productive energy increases for ovary growth and for body weight gain. Remember, the hen reaches her greatest weight in April so she needs more energy to produce the muscle and fat. As with the rooster, the hen's maintenance energy continues to decrease in April as increasing temperatures reach the hen's thermoneutral zone. Unlike the rooster, the hen is gaining weight in April, which means she is consuming more food now than she did last winter. A hen consumes 61 gm and 69 gm of food daily in March and April, respectively. She consumed 52 gm and 55 gm in January and February, respectively. Thus the hen's total metabolic rate and metabolic needs have increased over that of last January. The exact relationship to the rooster's metabolic needs in unknown. It is probably far greater for the hen, as she prepares for a rigorous breeding season.
The diets of the rooster and the hen diverge in March and April. Whereas the rooster's diet changes little from January to June, the hen's diet shows marked changes, particularly in mineral components. The diet of the hen contains 6 times more calcium than the rooster's diet in April, 14 times more in May, and 10 times more in June. This May peak in calcium occurs during peak egg-laying. Corn is a good source of vitamin A, but a poor source of calcium. To obtain calcium, the hen actively seeks calcareous grit. If she cannot find it, she will extract calcium from her own bones for the eggs.
Protein intake increases to a May and June peak of 14.6 percent for the hen. The rooster reaches a peak of 12.8 percent in April. The winter corn diet provided only 8.8 percent protein. Insects provide the greatest protein source, and the hen will consume more insects than the rooster.
"Territories and Harems"
The rooster's breeding territory may be as small as one acre, or as large as 75 acres, depending on the number of other roosters. With more roosters and a smaller territory, the rooster may be so busy fighting neighbors that it interferes with his gathering and servicing of the harem. As the breeding season progresses, territory size will decrease with the rooster spending more time with his harem.
The rooster starts gathering his harem in early April. The crowing and beating of his wings reaches peak intensity in mid-April, and continues through May. His testicles also reach maximum size in April. The crowing warns other roosters to stay away, and says to the hens, "I'm one loving dude." Harems as large as 18 hens exist in the wild, but normally are only 3 or 4. He can serve up to 50 hens. In South Dakota the average harem size observed from 1949 to 1981 was only 2.6 hens per rooster. Both low harem sizes, and small rooster territory sizes means that there are more roosters having to divide the available hens and land. In other words, during last year's hunting season you could have harvested twice as many roosters without hurting this spring's breeding population.
"Eggs and Mating"
The hen will lay eggs at random as her ovary gears up to full production of one egg a day. Because she produces precocial chicks (ie. hatched with open eyes, covered with down, and able to leave the nest immediately), she has to put more energy into her eggs than does a robin or dove in their eggs. These birds produce altricial chicks (ie. hatched with eyes closed, body naked, and not able to leave the nest immediately), and need less energy per egg since the chicks are less developed at hatching. The pheasant hen's egg needs 1.6 kcal/gm, while the robin's egg needs only 1.0 kcal/gm. The average 30 gm pheasant egg contains 49 kcal and took 69 kcal to produce. This is 18 percent of the hen's daily energy needs in April. Cold weather in late April can slow the hen's egg production, since eggs require a substantial portion of her energy intake.
As the hen prepares for egg laying, she is courted by the rooster. She comes and goes as she pleases until mating starts. Then she will limit her travels to a 37 acre area. Numerous matings with the rooster are not necessary, as sperm remains viable within the hen for 11 to 42 days. An entire nest of eggs could be laid after one mating.
The first eggs produced in April are dumped at random wherever the hen might be at the time. Even a duck may find a pheasant egg in its nest. The hen's ability to lay and to nest is subject to late April storms and cold weather. As the hen gears up to 1.3 eggs per day, cold temperatures and shortages of food will delay production.
While we might welcome an early spring, it is of little benefit to the hen's nesting. Egg laying and nesting is tied more closely to day length than to warm temperatures. But for the early hen that starts a mid-April nest, one freezing night can destroy her effort. Because the hen does not incubate until the nest has 12 eggs, her April nest may freeze if temperatures dip below 29°F. Let's say she has laid her first 9 or 10 eggs in the nest, and it freezes that night. She will continue laying the remaining 3 or 4 to fill the nest, and then start incubating all 12 eggs. But only the 3 or 4 will hatch. This is her family, small as it is, and she is done for the year. She will not nest again.
"Insecticide - Direct or Indirect Effects?"
People researching the effects of insecticides on pheasants feel that most insecticides do not have a harmful direct effect on the birds. A crop sprayer may past right over the hen on her nest, misting her with the chemical, and she lives to hatch a family (no one knows the effects of misting the chicks). Yet, why do the number of pheasants seem to decline with spraying? In other words, are there indirect effects of the insecticide? Hens will take their chicks where food can be found. By killing all the chick's protein sources (bugs), the hen will try to find better feeding elsewhere. Unfortunately, if the spraying is widespread, where can she go? The diets of newly hatched chicks are 90% insects. This provides them the 27% protein intake necessary for good growth. It also helps them gain control over their own body temperatures. A hen broods her chicks because they can not control their own body temperature for the first 7-8 days. If the chick's diet falls to 22% protein, it takes the chick 12-13 days to regulate its temperature ... almost doubling the time it could die from cool weather.
April often brings cold rain or wet snow. While a summer rain may bring cooling refreshment to the pheasant, a cold April shower could easily cause the bird to loose too much body heat and die. That is, if it were not for their waterproof clothing, feathers. Newly hatched chicks, covered with down, must not get wet. Though the down is fluffy and warm, it gets wet easily and kills the chick. The hen must shelter her chicks. Once the chick has its first full body feathers (about 3 weeks), it must waterproof them. The chick's first feathers, or any new feathers on an adult, are not naturally waterproof. The bird must do the waterproofing by using an oil gland on the top-base of their tail. It's called preening.
The oil gland (called uropygial or preen gland) secretes a substance containing much fat, fatty acids, and wax. The bird, while preening (straightening and cleaning) his feathers, will pinch the gland nipple with its bill and/or rub its head feathers on the nipple. The waxy substance is then rubbed on all the body feathers. The wax not only waterproofs feathers, it also helps the bill maintain its surface structure and gloss.
"April Busy Month"
Spring is very active for roosters and hens. Roosters use energy in fighting, crowing, displaying, and courting hens. A rooster can service over 20 hens. His urge to reproduce exceeds his need to eat, so he losses weight. Even with a harem of 18 hens, the rooster can fertilize 87-97% of the eggs. Roosters remain sexually active through July to serve renesting hens.
Depending on weather, the hen may gain weight in April. She is also eating more than she did last January. While the rooster shows little change in diet, the hen's diet shows marked changes. She eats 6 to 14 times more calcium than the rooster. Her May peak in calcium intake occurs during peak egg-laying. If she cannot find calcareous grit, she will extract calcium from her own bones for the eggs. She also consumes more insects than the rooster.
By Ken Solomon
"May Roosters and Hens"
May is a very active month for roosters and hens. Roosters use energy in fighting, crowing, displaying, and courting hens. The male's crowing peaks this month as he gathers a harem. A rooster can service over 20 hens but 5 to 10 is ideal. His testes reach maximum weight now. His urge to reproduce exceeds his need to eat, so he continues the weight-loss that started last month.
The hen's energy demands are greater then the male's, but she will increase her food intake. In fact her food consumption is greater in May then it was last winter. But she still loses weight as she lays 30 to 50 eggs, starts incubation, and avoids swathers and predators. Her one ovary reaches maximum weight as egg laying begins. The hen consumes 14 times more calcium than the roosters and her protein intake (insects) is six times greater. The supply of May insects is extremely important to egg production. Spraying 95% of your lands for insect problems, instead of 100% can double the number of chicks surviving to 10 weeks.
"Fertility and Laying"
Even with a harem of 18 hens, the rooster can fertilize 87 to 97 percent of the eggs. Cold, wet weather can slow testicular growth and sperm production, but the rooster can still fertilize 90 percent of the eggs. The rooster will remain sexually active through July to serve renesting hens.
Peak egg-laying is in May. Even though her May food consumption is at its highest level for the year, she is not consuming enough energy to cover the cost of reproduction. Body fat and muscle must then be used to produce eggs. The hen uses 21 to 30 percent of the energy intake for eggs. Her weight decreases to 2.3 pounds, and her body fat decreases 14 percent. Hens may lay 15 to 20 eggs before even thinking about a nest. Once the ovary is producing one egg each day, she will instinctively build a nest and fill it one egg per morning. She may lay 30 to 50 eggs during the course of the breeding season. One pheasant pair, free of environmental resistance, could produce 20 million pheasants in ten years, even if each young bird lived only long enough to produce one brood.
Long periods of cold, wet May weather can delay and slow egg production. The hen will divert energy from eggs to keeping warm. A severe decrease of the hen's energy intake can delay laying, and can decrease egg production 9 percent. The fewer eggs are just as viable as when she was at full production. Even if food were inaccessible for two days, it would take three days before ovary degeneration occurred and egg-laying slowed. In the Great Plains, peak nesting has been delayed until June 1 because of cool springs. A two- or three-week delay in nesting does have drawbacks. First, it increases the chance that eggs will be subjected to high temperatures. A 90 degree day can start embryo development. A cool night will then kill the embryo. Second, chicks produced from late nests are less able to survive the hot, dry July/August weather. And third, delayed nesting can decrease hen survival next winter. A late nest means late molting, which means delayed fat production. The late nesting hen is forced, in the summer, into producing feathers instead of body fat. Less body fat means less chance of surviving next winter.
"Clutch Size and Incubation"
The average hen incubates 10 to 12 eggs. At first, she supplies all the heat to maintain eggs at 107 degrees. This heat gradually diminishes as the embryo develops and increases its own heat production. Eventually, the hen's function is to insulate the eggs, protect them from predators, and rewarm them after an absence. Incubation requires 22 percent of the hen's heat production. Arguments arise, however, about whether the hen's normal loss of body heat is enough to incubate eggs, or if energy intake must be increased to produce more heat.
The longer the hen sits on her eggs, the less likely she is to abandon or to be forced off the nest. Because of this devotion, mowing or swathing of farm fields during the later stages of incubation can destroy many hens. She will leave the nest for little more than one hour a day. If in her absence the egg temperature falls below 80 degrees, the embryo's physiological processes stop and the embryo dies. Cool weather or an extended absence by the hen means death to her young. Returning to cool eggs, elicits a thermoregulatory response by the hen, such as shivering, which increases her heat production to rewarm the eggs.
"Successful First Nest"
For the hen and the chicks, the best possible situation is a "successful first nest." Renesting costs energy. The hen must again increase ovary size, produce one egg a day, fill a nest, and incubate it. This is energy she should use to raise chicks, grow new feathers, and build body fat. Next winter the renesting hens have less body fat than firstnest hens. Chicks from a renest have less time to grow than first hatch chicks. They go into the winter smaller, not as fat, and surviving less.
Alfalfa mowing usually occurs during the hens last week on the nest. Landowners might delay cutting 7 to 10 days so the hen can hatch her chicks. The alfalfa's nutritional value will be lower, but there will be more chicks, greater chick summer survival, and more hens and chicks surviving next winter. Consider mowing 7 to 10 days before peak nutritional value. The hen will probably flush before the mower strikes. The regression of the ovary is less, so renesting is quicker. Also, do not mow around the nest leaving an island of cover. Fox, skunks, coons, and sea gulls quickly learn that islands hide delicious pheasant eggs and hen. It is better to mow over the nest thus forcing the hen to begin again.
Look around the farm and roadsides. See any standing grass from last year? The hen is looking too for an idle grassy area. If last year was dry, nearly every blade of grass was cut, and where can the hens nest? Alfalfa fields may be the only cover available. But the alfalfa's peak nutritional value is reached during the last few days of egg incubation, so swathing will destroy 90% of the nests. Thanks to the federal CRP program, many acres of residual grass are available to the hens this spring, and fewer hens will have to rely on the alfalfa fields. But if this spring is dry, how many CRP areas will be cut like the alfalfa fields?
Hens prefer grass fields that 1) are 20 acres, 2) have been idle for less than 5 years old, and 3) have last year's dead grass standing upright. In South Dakota more hens will nest (per acre) in a 20 acre field than anything smaller or larger. As the idle stand ages, dead grass lodges and becomes too thick. Mow or graze the stand every 5 years to get rid of the dead litter. Mow or graze more frequently if the grass does not stand well under winter snows. Brome grass falls easily under snow, and must be mowed or grazed more frequently than switch grass which stands well under snow.
While the hen is building her ovary to the point where she can lay one egg per day, she will drop eggs anywhere. Single eggs can be found in pastures, small grain fields, and farm yards. If a hen sees another hen's egg laying in a field, she may deposit her egg next to it. She may return in 3 or 4 days when she's ready to drop her next egg. With other hens visiting the site, more than 30 eggs may be laid over several weeks. This is called a dump nest since no real nest was ever constructed, and since the hens laying there will not incubate them. With so many eggs, it is impossible for one hen to keep them all warm. Dump nests do not detract from the ability of those hens to later build and lay in their own nests. It is a convenient place to dump eggs until she is able to lay one per day, and build a real nest.
An early egg may be deposited in a duck nest. This can cause the duck problems in that the pheasant egg will hatch in 23 days while the duck eggs will take 25 days. With the pheasant egg hatching first, the duck may be tempted to take her pheasant family and desert the about-to-hatch ducklings. This does not occur very often, and biologists feel it causes the duck population no real problems.
"Too Hot or Too Cold"
The first two weeks of May is when hens are depositing eggs in their nests. Temperatures during these two weeks can be critical in determining how many eggs will hatch. A hen will visit the nest each morning, lay an egg, and then leave again until next morning. Because incubation does not start until the nest is full, the first eggs are subject to temperature extremes. Say the nest now has 8 eggs. If the temperature just one night drops below 35°F, the unprotected eggs chill or actually freeze. These eggs will not develop when the hen does start to incubate. The hen will continue to lay until 12 eggs fill the nest. She incubates. Only 3 eggs hatch. Instead of a family of 11, she has 3, and next fall's hunting season will not be as good as last year. High temperatures during the first two weeks of May can have the same effect. Say the temperature reaches 92°F one afternoon. The 8 unprotected eggs start to develop on their own without a sitting mother. That night, if the temperature drops below 60°F, the embryos die. Again the hen does not know of their death, and will fill the nest, incubate, and hatch 3 chicks. Even if she hatches only 1 chick, the hen is now a mother and will not try again to hatch a bigger family.
Before or after the crops are planted, they must be fertilized to assure top yields. Does this hurt the hen's ability to lay and hatch eggs? South Dakota treated hens with recommended field mixtures of N, P2O5 and K2O. Fields were fertilized in which hens were penned, and other hens were force fed amounts equal to what they might consume in the wild. Also different fertilizer mixtures were combined with the food of 3-day old and 6-day old chicks. When results were compared to hens and chicks receiving no fertilizers, no differences were seen in egg production, clutch size, egg fertility, eggshell thickness, pipping rates, hatchability, chick behavior, and in chick or hen weight. While 3-day old chicks tended to consume more fertilizer then 6-day old chicks, it did not affect their growth rate.
Spring and many folks consider releasing domestic, adult hens to help the wild population. Nationwide, restockers have accepted the fact that releasing 7- to 10-week old birds does not work. They have turned to spring releases of adult hens. It has been proven that this also does not work. Six states found that with the release of 50 hens, at best 4 hens will hatch 30 chicks ( 0.60 chicks per hen released). South Dakota has firmed these poor results. Of 54 hens released in 1990, only 3 nested, and 9 chicks were hatched (0.19 per hen released). They kept track of each hen by using small, solar-powered radio collars.
These poor successes may be attributed to the fact that the hens, when they were chicks, had no mother to reinforce their innate behavior patterns. In 1990, Sweden placed chicks with a foster mother. Those who had a mom were able to produce four times more chicks than those who did not have a mom (0.80 chicks per hen vs. 0.19). In other words, if you released 50 hens that had had a foster mother, they would still produce only 40 chicks. England recently found that the released hens which do hatch a nest are far less able than wild hens to keep her family alive to 10 weeks.
"Laying and Sitting Hard"
May is a month of egg laying and incubation for pheasant hens. This winter was mild, so the hens should be fat and in perfect body condition to produce good size nests this month. With the onset of laying (before incubation starts), daily air temperatures become important. Temperatures above 920 and below 350F can destroy the unprotected eggs. Heavy rains can also slow egg laying. Producing chicks isn't easy for the hen, and the rooster cares only about breeding.
While walking through a field you might flush a hen from her nest. Without breaking an egg open to examine the chick, can you tell how close she is to hatching the eggs? Once the nest is full, the hen will incubate the eggs for 23 days. The closer the chicks are to hatching, the harder it is to flush the hen. If she flushed when you were 40-50 feet away, she is in the first week of incubation. If she flushed 20-40 feet away, probably in the second week. If you had to almost step on her, the eggs are close to hatching. Also, listen to an egg. The chicks start peeping 3 or 4 days before they hatch. Hens communicate with the chicks a couple days before hatching to enforce the bond between chick and hen.
"Nests in Trees"
Pheasants will nest in shelterbelts, but it is not ideal cover. Shelterbelts are the hens next to last choice for nesting. A summary of 10 western states showed that only 3.5 percent of the pheasant nests were in woody cover. If a high percentage of your hens are nesting in shelterbelts, it is probably because the hen can find nothing else in which to nest. Pheasant are persistent and will use any available habitat to breed and survive. If good grass cover is not available to the hens, they could concentrate nests in tree cover. Although they might not have the greatest nesting success among trees, the hen will still give it a try.
A more typical nesting area, like a switch grass field, will have greater nesting use when square in shape and near 20 acres in size. Tree plantings of similar shape and size might provide better nesting than do narrow tree belts. Remember though that the ringneck is not a woodland bird, and that it is not known if predators would be less efficient in larger belts.
During incubation, it is very important that the hen turn the eggs often each day. Each time she leaves the nest or stands to stretch, she will roll the eggs over. Why? Gravity of course pulls the developing chick downward, so the chick actually lays on the inside of the egg shell. If it lays there for more than a day, it might stick to the shell. The hen therefore keeps turning the egg so the chick can keep flip-flopping inside the shell. Depending on when the chick first gets stuck, the chick will continue its development. Death comes at hatching time. With part of its body stuck to the shell, the chick can not pip a complete circle in the shell to hatch. The chick will exhaust itself and die trying to get out of the egg. The hen will not help her struggling chick hatch.
Sticking to the shell is more probable during drought conditions. With low humidity levels during incubation, the chicks are more likely to stick and not hatch. States (conducting pheasant brood surveys in July and August) often note smaller brood sizes when May and June were hot and dry.
Until the last egg is placed in the nest, the hen can roam here and there, and do as she pleases. While she is filling the nest, her only daily obligation is to return to the nest each morning to lay one more egg. Last egg laid means her freedom stops. For 23 day she must remain on the nest keeping the eggs warm, and protecting them from scorching afternoon temperatures and rain. Occasionally she will roll the eggs around in the nest to insure the chicks do not stick to the inside of the shell. Surely incubation is easier on the hen than producing up to 40 eggs before the nest is full? Not so! While egg production caused her to lose weight, so does incubation. Mainly because she no longer feeds herself well. Protecting the eggs is priority, feeding is secondary. The hen will leave the nest for only an hour each day to feed herself. This is not enough to maintain a stable weight. She will continue the weight lose she started in March.
"Should You Incubate?"
Peak egg laying occurs in early May as hens fill their nests. If you find an egg should you take the time, and expend the effort to incubate it? This depends on if the nest is abandoned or not. If you know the hen has abandoned the eggs or has been killed, why not try incubating them. Remember though that when you release the incubator hatched birds, their survival in the wild is very poor. If you find the nest is in a harvested field and the hen is alive, leave the nest alone. Although the cover is gone, and predators may have a better chance of finding the nest, the eggs are best left to the hen. The probability of a chick living until fall is greater if the hen tries to hatch and raise it, than if you hatch and release it.
Without a hen to teach survival techniques and feeding habit, and to reinforce instinctive behavior patterns, the chicks' chances of surviving the wild are small. Of 50 chicks released in July or August, fewer than 15 will survive into winter and fewer than 4 into spring. Of 50 chicks raised by wild hens, 33 will survive into winter and 22 into spring (S. Riley).
"Incubate a Full Nest"
One egg is laid in the nest each morning. The hen will NOT start sitting on the nest until it is full (12 to 14 eggs). So for 10 or more days the eggs are not protected from the weather. Temperatures over 92 degrees or near freezing will kill the eggs because the hen is not protecting them. So why doesn't the hen sit and protect the eggs earlier? ... Because of skunks, raccoons, and foxes, that's why! You see, spring weather that is too hot or too cool threatens nests only once every few years. But predators threaten nests every year. They are always hungry. If the hen did sit on the first egg laid in the nest, that egg would hatch 12 days before the last egg laid. That gives a raccoon 12 days to find the nest and chicks. So the hen waits until all eggs are laid before starting to incubate, so they all hatch at the same time. Then she can quickly take the chicks away from the stinky nest. The fox may smell and find the hatched eggs, but the chicks will be long gone.
"Age That Chick"
If you capture a chick, or find one road-killed, you can age it using feather growth. Since flight feathers are the best indicator of age, let's first learn how to identify these feathers, and how they grow. Then next week you'll get a table to use to age the chick. The most important aging feathers are the outermost flight feathers, called "primaries". These are the 10 longest wing feathers and are on the hand segment (tip) of the wing. For aging purposes, we will number these feathers 1 (the outer most feather) through 10 (the inner most primary). Pheasants grow two sets of primaries the first year. The first set of 10, "juvenile" primaries, are fully grown at 2 to 3 weeks of age. Then each feather is systematically molted (dropped), and replaced with a larger "post juvenile" feather. This is like molting your baby teeth systematically for larger adult teeth. The first primary feather molted is No. 10, then 9, then 8 ... progressing to No. 1. When fully grown at 23 weeks, the post juveniles are not molted again until after next year's breeding season.
"Age That Chick"
If you capture a chick, or find one road-killed, you can age it using feather growth. See last week's article to learn how to identify the primary feathers described below. Age Feather Description .
1-2 days -has primary wing feathers 10-4, and egg tooth.
By Ken Solomon
1 wks -secondary wing feathers start growing.
2 wks -body feathers start on breast/rump/back/tail, can fly short distances.
3 wks -feathers everywhere except head, neck, belly.
4 wks -feathers start on top head, No. 10 primary lost.
5 wks -very little down remaining, No. 9 primary lost.
6 wks -head has pinfeathery look, No. 8 primary lost.
7 wks -roosters showing red color, No. 7 primary lost.
8 wks -roosters red deepens, No. 6 primary lost.
9 wks -first greenish color on rooster neck, No. 5 primary lost.
10 wks -No. 4 primary lost.
Unfortunately, alfalfa reaches peak nutritional value just prior to most hens hatching their nests. Since alfalfa is the first, lush, green growth each spring, and since other nesting habitat is generally lacking, hens will concentrate their nests in alfalfa fields. Up to 70% of the nests will be destroyed and 50% of the hens destroyed by the swather. The nests not destroyed are heavily predated. Farmers hate the loss. Farmers will find and mow around nests, but the predators have learned that such islands have food in them. Placing a flushing bar in front of the equipment to scare the hen from the nest does not work. The closer the hen is to hatching her young, the harder it is to make her leave the nest. Short of an actual kick in the rear, she will not move, and you have scrambled hen.
Planting later maturing varieties of alfalfa, or waiting 5 to 7 more days before mowing, would allow most hens to hatch the nests and move the chicks. When seeing a hen running a short distance in front of the equipment, slow down, mow around the brood, come back to the island when the field is complete, and mow slowly with the blades 6 inches high.
Should landowners try incubating the eggs they find while harvesting fields? If harvesting killed the hen, then try incubating the eggs. If the hen survived, the eggs are better left in the nest. True, once the protective cover is harvested, predators have a good chance of finding the hen and the nest. But it is better to chance predation and maybe allow the hen to raise her family, than to create an incubator/brooder mother. Without a hen to teach survival techniques and feeding habits, and to reinforce instinctive behavior patterns, the chicks' chances of surviving the wild are small. Of 50 chicks released in July or August, less than 15 will survive into winter, less than 4 into spring. Of 50 chicks raised by wild hens, 33 will survive into winter, and 22 into spring.
Trying to better these odds, Sweden placed incubator-hatched chicks with foster pheasant mothers. Chicks normally stay with the hens for 10 to 12 weeks. So at 10 weeks of age, the incubator chicks were released. Of 50 non-fostered chicks, 21 lived to three months. Of 50 fostered, 22 were alive. Little difference! Unfortunately the foster mothers were also incubator hatched.
"Insects and Body Temperature"
Peak pheasant hatch occurs the first two weeks of June, and the new chicks need insects. Up to two weeks old, they will grow faster than at any other time in their life, 8% weight gain per day. To support such growth, their diet must be over 90% insects. A minimum protein intake of 27% is needed both for growth and regulation of body temperature. The hen must brood her chicks during cool nights until they are 11-days old and can control their own body temperature. An outdoor temperature of 430F for 30 minutes can kill 100% of the 2-day old chicks, 14% of the 7-day old chicks, and 0% of the 11-day chicks. Spraying for insects during this time can slow the chick's growth, and can make them more susceptible to cool temperatures. If the chick's protein intake were to drop from the needed 27% to say 22%, it would take the chick 5 additional days to gain control of its body temperature.
With high insect infestations, landowners must spray to insure a crop. Concerned, they ask, "Of all insecticides, which one will have the least effect on pheasants?" The answer is unknown. Insecticide/pheasant research stopped after dieldrin and other organochlorines were removed from the market, and were replaced by carbamates. Carbamates are not as toxic to wildlife because of their shorter field life. Indications are that while carbamates might not kill game birds immediately, they may affect the birds' metabolic rate, thus affecting body fat deposition and winter survival. Research is needed to answer the landowners' question.
Spraying technique can make a difference. Crops can withstand some grasshoppers, but once they reach the economic threshold of 8/yd2, spraying is recommended. The intent of spraying is to kill grasshoppers down to 0/yd2 ... good-bye pheasant food! Would reducing the hoppers to just below the economic threshold help more chicks' to survival to 10 weeks of age? In England, farmers who did not spray 6% of each field had pheasant’s broods (at 10 weeks) two times larger than farmers who sprayed entire fields.
"Hatch Two Nests?"
It is common during the summer to see a hen with two broods, but they are not both hers? Physically it is impossible for her to hatch a second nest. With the first egg laid she started losing weight, and she lays 30 to 35 eggs before incubating a nest of 12 (if you laid 35 footballs, you would be physically pooped). Weight loss continues during 23 days of incubation because she feeds herself poorly. At hatching she starts producing all new body feathers. Still losing weight, motherhood next requires 8 to 10 weeks of chick care. It is now mid-August, and she is at her lowest weight. She has neither the time nor energy to again lay 30 eggs, incubate 23 days, and raise for 8 weeks. Most likely she has adopted an abandoned or lost brood. The hen will readily adopt another brood.
The two broods with the hen are generally 3 to 4 weeks apart in age. Even if the hen hatched her first brood, and immediately started another nest, 4 weeks is not enough time to hatch again. It takes 10 days for her ovary to lay one egg a day, 9 days to fill the second nest, and 23 to incubate.... total of 42 days or 6 weeks. And what are the first chicks doing while mom tries the impossible?
June is the peak nest hatching month for pheasants. Let's say you find an empty egg shell, or even a piece of egg shell. Do you know how to tell if that egg hatched successfully? If you have the entire egg shell and the larger end is neatly chipped off (like the egg has a cap), it was probably successful. But a predator could have bitten the end off, so it may not be successful. To be totally sure, look for the skin on the inside of the shell. When you break a chicken egg for breakfast, first you crack the shell then use your thumbs to break through the skin inside the shell. While the embryo develops, the skin is stuck tightly to the shell. When the chick hatches, the skin separates from the shell and dries out. You can easily lift the entire skin out of the shell (looks like a thin paper cup). If the skin is still stuck to the shell, the egg did not hatch.
If you find only a piece of a pheasant egg, again look for the skin. If the skin is stuck to the shell, and you can not pull it easily from the shell, then the egg was not successful. If the skin is not present, it dried up and fell off after hatching.
"Successful First Nest"
It is very important that the hen's first nest be successful. If the first attempt is destroyed by weather, machinery, or predators, the future of the hen and any chicks that she might produce is grim. Recall that each time the hen attempts to nest, her physical condition deteriorates. Ideally the first attempt needs to be successful, so she can sooner begin to prepare her body for next winter. With renesting attempts, she has less time to get ready for winter, and is less likely to survive winter. Also consider that the chicks need plenty of time to grow up, then put on body fat before winter hits. The later the chicks hatch this spring, the less time they have to grow up, and the less likely they will survive the winter.
If a hen hatches her first nest in early June, the chances of her and the chicks surviving next winter is 65-75%. If her first nest was destroyed, and she tries another nest (that hatches in early July), the chance she and the chicks survive next winter is 30-50%. If the second attempt failed and she tries successfully a third time, the chances are 0-10%.
Pheasant chicks are precocial, which means they hatch and can leave the nest immediately. This ability is very important to ground nesting birds, as the hatched eggs produce enough aromas to attract predators. So, better be able to leave the nest fast before the fox finds you. With chicks that are able to immediately run around, "imprinting" is very important. A simple definition of imprinting is "learning to follow." The chicks imprint on their hen or learn to follow their hen within a couple hours of hatching. Imprinting is a learned behavior. The chicks must learn who their mother is and to follow her. Some experts believe that this learning process is started before the chicks actually hatch. In fact, hens begin talking to the chicks two to three days before hatching. "How's it going in there, kids?" "Great Mom, but a little cramped!" This communicating through the egg shell helps the chicks to recognize Mom at hatching, and enhances their ability to learn to follow her. This imprinting process insures that the family stays close together, so the chicks can be better protected.
"Do Embryos Breath?"
Of course the developing embryos have to breathe. Even through the egg shell. The shell is porous enough that oxygen and carbon dioxide can pass readily through it. During the 1960's there was much concern that agricultural chemicals sprayed on farm fields would coat the eggs thus causing the embryos to suffocate and die. Studies with DDT, 2,4-D, dieldrin, and parathion though showed that spraying the eggs had no effect on the embryos' breathing, or hatching. Generally though, the peak spraying occurred when the eggs were covered by a hen. The hen took the brunt of the chemical.
Pheasant chicks can be aged using feather development. If you capture a chick, or find one road-killed, try to age it. Compare the chick's feather development to the list below.
The list works for both roosters and hens. Week of Age Feather Description.
1-2 days -flight feathers starting, and has an egg tooth.
1 -wing feathers next to body start growing.
2 -body feathers start on breast & rump, can fly.
3 -feathers everywhere except head, neck, belly.
4 -feathers start on top head.
5 -very little down remaining.
6 -head has pinfeathery look.
7 -roosters show slight red color on head.
8 -roosters red deepens.
9 -first greenish color on rooster neck.
If the body feathers are just starting, and today is June 20th, then the chick hatched about June 6 (June 20 minus 2 weeks) from a nest that started April 29 (June 6 minus 23 days incubation minus 16 days to lay the 12 eggs).
The time when the most pheasant nests are hatching is called the "peak hatch." Nationally this occurs June 1-15, but may be delayed up to two weeks by cool wet spring weather. Such weather will not hinder incubation of the nest, but could have delayed egg laying late April to early May. During June the chicks are 1 to 3 weeks old. What are they doing then? Trying to stay alive! Their survival will depend on the size of their range, the insects available to them, and their diet.
After 23 days of incubation the eggs hatch. Once the chicks are dry, the hen leads them to suitable feeding areas where they begin feeding themselves. The chicks can not control their body temperature for the first week so the hen periodically broods them to prevent chilling. The hens call to the chicks even when they are still in the eggs. The hen also warns the chicks of approaching danger with a low pitched call causing the chicks to scatter and then freeze. After the threat is gone, she calls the chicks together with a clucking call. Chicks have three calls... a contentment call, a hurried-caution call, and a plaintive call which attracts the hen and other lost chicks (Hill 88).
"Morality Based On Range"
Chicks are 1 to 3 weeks old, and trying to stay alive. Most mortality occurs during the first 10-12 days after hatching. Their survival depends on the size of their range, the insects available to them, and their diet. Chicks, in their broods, daily move within 225 feet of where they spent the night. During their first 3 weeks their range is 4 to 12 acres. The range increases with chick age.
Broods with the largest ranges tend to suffer the highest mortality. Similarly, the larger ranges tend to contain lower densities of insects. Remember that chicks need protein to grow, so their diet needs to be 90% insects. Therefore broods that are short of food tend to wonder over larger areas and suffer heavier mortality. Movements are greater, ranges are larger, and chick mortality is higher with broods feeding in large monoculture farms. Those living on more diverse farms have smaller ranges and greater survival due to greater insect densities. (Hill 88)
"Mortality Based On Food"
When 1-2 weeks old, the chick's diet is 90% insects. The chick is growing at its fastest rate and needs a diet of at least 27% protein. So chicks eat no less than 22 different groups of insects. England found that 58% of the chick's diet was caterpillars of sawflies and of Lepidoptera (butterflies). Chicks which suffer less then 50% mortality eat 3 times more insects. Predators also increase chick mortality, but some managers note that predation is of secondary importance to insect abundance. The more insects you have, particularly caterpillars, the greater your chick survival. Hens do take their chicks to areas of greatest insect populations. Number one is weedy areas both outside and within crops, with spring wheat being number two. Organic farmers have long known that planting certain plants (weeds) attract many beneficial insects. Home gardeners know what plants attract the most butterflies and their caterpillars. Perhaps the knowledge of these farmers and gardeners could be used on your land to increase pheasant chick survival? (Hill 88)
"Age by Body Size"
Most managers age pheasant chicks very precisely using wing feather and body feather growth. An easier, though less accurate, method of aging chicks is by comparing the chick's body size to that of its hen. A 1 or 2 day old chick is only slightly taller than the hen's knee. At 2 weeks old, the chick stands about 1/4 of the hen's height. At 6 weeks it is half as tall as the hen. At 8 weeks, 2/3 as high. And at 10 weeks 3/4 as high. Let's say you determine that the brood running across the road is 8 weeks old. If this is August 22nd, you now know the brood hatched around June 27th. This was probably the hen's second nesting attempt since most first attempts hatch the first week of June. You also know the nest was started May 20th (date hatched minus 23 days incubation minus 15 days to lay the 12 eggs (1.3 days per eggs)). Those early May rains may have drowned her first nest. Being her second attempt, her chicks may not survive as well next winter.
By Ken Solomon
"Cocks and Hens"
The cock pheasant never did play a large energy role in spring reproduction, and he is even less active in July and August. Because the reproductive season ends in July, the cock has little to do this summer, except complete the feather molt he started in June. He has lost weight each month since last February's blizzards, but in July he can begin preparing his body for next winter. It's never too early to begin thinking about next winter. The poor hen will have to wait until September to prepare for winter.
After the energy demands of egg laying, nesting, incubation, renesting, and raising chicks, the hen is in poor physical condition. Summer will not allow her to rest. She must raise her chicks and begin molting all her feathers. These will cost her 15% of her body weight, or a 25% loss since egg laying began in April. In July her chicks are 2 to 6 weeks old, and she needs energy for brooding and keeping them well fed. The hen will also expand her activities from just around the nest to an area 71 acres in size. Depending on the number of renesting attempts, and the total number of eggs laid, the hen could easily lose 30% of her weight by late August. Compare that to the maximum 16% weight loss of the cock.
"Summer Air Conditioning"
Birds -like dogs and cows- can not sweat to air condition their body. They must pant (rapid inhaling and exhaling) to remove excess body heat. For birds it is called "gular flutter." Unfortunately, it does require the bird's metabolic rate to increase, which in turn produces more body heat. Gular flutter easily removes more heat than it produces. But if outdoor temperatures exceed the pheasant's body temperature (107 degrees), gular flutter can not dissipate the total heat produced by the weather and by gular flutter. The pheasant's temperature then rises and it dies. Because of the hen's poor physical condition, summer heat can kill more hens than did winter's cold.
Pheasant chicks have a heat production rate 2.4 times higher than their parents. So how can they survive the hot summer? A chick's air conditioning cannot remove 2.4 times more heat. Fortunately the chick's advantage over an adult is in its smaller size. It losses more heat directly through its body (as opposed to panting). Geometry class taught you that a small ball has more surface area to volume than a big ball. With the greater surface area, the small chick can lose heat faster than the large adult. The chick may produce twice as much heat, but it can also lose it twice as fast.
Pheasant chicks will be 2 to 10 weeks old in July and August and a good number will be dead. The first of July when chicks are 2 weeks old, 25% have died since hatching. When 7 weeks old in August, 33% are dead. At 10 weeks old, up to 48% are dead. The reasons for this annual die-off are unknown, but may be due to: 1) the poor breeding condition of some hens after a tough winter, 2) the early or lateness of nesting, 3) the number of renesting attempts made by the hen, 4) the susceptibility of chicks to cool spring temperatures, 5) summer heat, 6) chemical spraying for insects, or 7) all the above.
"Chick Molting and Weight"
After their June hatch, pheasant chicks begin growing flight feathers, and are capable of short flights at 2 weeks old. In early July (3 to 4 weeks old), they have replaced their yellow down with feathers looking like that of the dull brown hen. The cocks and hens are the same size and color. In August (6 weeks old), chicks begin a post juvenile molt which will eventually give them their adult plumage. The molt will be completed when chicks are 17 to 18 weeks old (late October).
The chick's greatest percentage weight gain occurs during its first and second weeks when the daily gain is 8.1% and 6.3%, respectively. As the chick gets larger, it gains a smaller percentage: at 6 weeks - 3.2%, 12 weeks - 1.0%, and 20 weeks - 0.5%. The chick of course can not continue to gain 8.1% of it weight each day. As it gains weight, a larger portion of its energy intake must go to maintaining the weight already gained, and a smaller portion to producing weight. Each gram of muscle contains 0.8 kilocalories, and requires 1.14 kilocalories to produce. This is a food to muscle conversion rate of about 70%.
During the summer, the chick's diet continues to differ from that of adult. Insects comprise considerably more of the chick's diet, and weed seeds more of the adult's diet. Chicks consume 36.3 and 35.1 percent insects in July and August compared to the adult's 10.2 and 9.4, respectively. Low availability of insects from the time of the chick's hatching (90% of diet at 1 week old) to 10 weeks old is one factor in the high mortality of chicks through the summer.
Nature also provides a supply of protein in foxtail and wheat. In July and August the small-grain harvest is at its peak and waste grain is everywhere. Foxtail and wheat comprise 52% of the chick's diet. The protein content of foxtail is 18% and wheat 14%. The adult's diet is 38% wheat. In September, both adults and chicks will shift from wheat to corn as corn harvesting begins.
Summer is a time of relaxation for roosters but a tough time for hens. The cock has completed reproductive functions, his annual molt, and has no chicks to raise. The hen is busy trying a second or third time to hatch a first nest, or raising young, and beginning her molt. These drain the hen's energy reserves (fat and muscle) to their lowest level of the year. By August she will lose 25% of her April weight. More hens may die now than died last winter. Her chances of dying increases if she herself was hatched late last year, if last winter was severe, if this spring weather delayed her nesting, if she has had to renest again and again, and if this summer is hot.
Although most breeding is complete by July, the rooster will produce active semen until late August. This is to service any late laying hens. Since the energy required to keep the rooster sexually active is small, he can begin producing fat for next winter. The hen, without a hatched nest, can produce eggs into September. September temperatures though soon force the hen to use energy for warmth, not eggs. With their third hay cutting, farmers report seeing hens incubating nests of only 5 or 6 eggs.
The pheasant chick's energy flow is like an engine running 100 mph compared to the adult's engine plodding along at 41 mph. Of course the adult uses more energy than a chick because the adult has more body to maintain (1,000 grams compared to 25 grams). But based on per gram weight (comparing a 1,000-gm adult to a 1,000-gm chick); a chick consumes 2.4 times more food and energy than an adult. This high metabolic rate is necessary to provide the chick with the production energy needed for growth.
The amount of energy needed by the chick for growth, feather production, and maintenance is unknown. Using white leghorn chickens for comparison, and assuming pheasants use half of the energy used by chickens (based on size and volume differences), a 1-week old pheasant chick requires 12 kilocalories per day. A 10-week chick uses 80 kcal per day (about half a Snikers candy bar). As the chick grows so does its energy intake. In July (2 to 6 weeks old), the weight of food in the chick's crop is 1.2 grams. In August (6 to 10 weeks old), the crop weights 4.3 grams.
Whether it be winter's blizzards and -300F windchills, spring's heavy rains and embryo killing 920F or 350F temperatures, summer's +1000F and hail storms, or fall's ice storms, weather does play a large part in determining the size of the pheasant population. In July, concern seems to be with hail storms. Such storms can kill both adult and young pheasants, and can leave a long path devoid of any birds. Concerned citizen will often complain that the state should restock the county with domestic chickens (pheasants). Fortunately hail storms rarely cover more than a couple townships, and those pheasants outside the storm's path will move into and repopulate the area within a couple years.
Pheasants will easily move two or more miles a year. And if they find the habitat they need, they will stay in the new area. And those birds pioneering a new area, devoid of other birds, may have greater nesting success than if they had stayed in their old area. Nesting success is density dependant, i.e. the fewer birds in an area the larger the percentage of the hens that will have a successful nest. Releasing domestic birds in the area will repopulate the area slower than the wild birds can, and releasing domestics does negatively affect the nesting success of the wild stock.
Diseases are not considered a major limiting factor of pheasant populations. Wild pheasants are generally free of common poultry diseases such as pullorum, coccidiosis, New Castle poultry cholera, blackhead and others. However, as shown by the presence of encephalitis antibodies in the blood of wild birds, pheasants are susceptible to equine encephalitis, or sleeping sickness in years of high mosquito populations (Trautman 1982).
Diseases may be a potential problem in areas where pheasants are raised in captivity, then released into the wild. These domestic pheasants, which receive feed medicated to prevent outbreaks of poultry diseases, may be carriers of such diseases. Their release into the wild may then transmit the diseases to wild pheasants which have not had the benefits of medication.
"Brood Rearing Area"
Brood rearing areas center around the site of hatching. For the first 3 weeks the area ranges from 10 to 30 acres. At this time the chicks can fly, and the area expands as their ability to fly increases. In June and July the chicks use the same cover types that were used for nesting: weedy patches, hayland, cropland edges, roadsides, railroad ROWs, shelterbelts, and wetland edges. By late August the home range of the chicks exceeds 70 acres. Of course the harvest of alfalfa and small grains at this time of year causes the ranges to shift around.
"Plant Brood Habitat"
When considering what you can do to help pheasants on your land, you first think of nesting cover, and winter cover with food plots. Have you considered brood cover? Since brood cover generally consists of the nesting cover, little thought is given to specialized brood cover. But small plantings for the chicks may increase their survival over the standard grassy nesting areas. Since the chicks' diet is over 90% insects, the brood cover plantings should be plantings for insects. And remember that annual weeds harbor more insects than perennials plants. The winter food plot you planted this spring?... consider leaving half of it undisturbed next spring. By letting the annual weeds grow next spring (take care of the thistle, but leave the rest), you'll attract many insects into the old food plot. It may attract the grasshoppers that you hate and the chicks love, but it will also attract the beneficial insects you both need.
"Plant for That Bug"
Pheasant managers in England have done considerable work finding out what specific areas chicks prefer for insects. First they determined that their chicks ate no fewer than 22 groups of insects, and that they preferred caterpillars of sawflies and Lepidoptera (butterflies) over any other insect. They also determined that hay and oat fields contain greater preferred insects than corn and soybeans, so planting more for hay and oats will increase chick survival. Broadleaf weeds also attract more preferred insects. By not spraying (herbicide or insecticide) 2 to 6% of each crop field, they allow more broadleaf weeds and subsequently more insects to survive for the chicks. Research continues into finding the specific plants that increased caterpillar populations. In the future, planting these specific plants would increase chick survival.
During early mornings when grass is wet with dew, pheasant chicks can be found along roads or in open spots within and along field edges. They want to stay dry and do not run through wet vegetation. This is a good time to pick up some needed grit and the seed and insects along the road. They prefer open cover when feeding, but heavier cover for loafing during midday. Although feeding occurs in all types of cover, they prefer recently cut fields of hay or grain. Woody cover is valuable to broods for shade, and its use is proportional to how high the temperature. Small trees and shrubs are use more frequently than tall trees and hedgerows. Broods use unmowed grasslands and weedy cover for roosting (sleeping) cover.
By Ken Solomon
The heat this summer can kill more hen pheasants than did last winter's cold. Why? The had to undergo a series of taxing, energy demanding changes during spring and into summer. All of which have left her tired and poor physical condition. First she was faced with the production of a number of eggs that equaled her body weight. She prepared herself by reaching peak weight in April. Then, with the first egg she laid, her weight decreased and has continued to do so. With her incubation of the eggs, came long hours without feeding herself as she attended to the nest. With hatching eggs came chicks to brood, feed and teach survival techniques. With motherhood also comes the replacement of all body feathers. By August she has lost 25% of her weight, and 73% of her body fat. Her vigor and health has decreased dramatically, and is shown by higher occurrences of diseases and parasites. Hen mortality will be high in August.
Annually hen pheasant mortality is effected by: 1) the season of the year, 2) when the hen herself was hatched last spring, 3) last winter, and 4) her egg production. Let's talk about the season of year. It is obvious that spring and summer place hens under tremendous stress. The better the physical condition of the hens, the longer they can survive without food. In early spring (April) when hens are in peak physical condition, they can survive 40 days without feed. In mid-winter (January) hens can survive 29 days. In late summer (August) hens can survive only 13 days without food. Of course food will not be lacking in either spring or summer, but note that survival for summer in less than half that of winter survival. In other words, she was in better physical condition last winter than she is now in August. Hens will die after losing 40% of their weight.
Do pheasants seek foods that fulfill a specific nutritional need? The answer is "no", when we talk about cereal grains and weed seeds. Their consumption of these items is dictated by availability. With the July/August harvest of small grains, small grains constitute the largest part of the bird's diet. With small grains becoming less available due to consumption, discing of fields, or rotting, more weeds seeds are consumed. As October corn and sorghum harvest begins, they become the largest parts of the diet, and will remain so until mid winter.
The answer is "yes", when we talk of calcium and insects. During egg laying, the hen seeks out calcium and protein. Her diet will contain 10 times more calcium than the rooster's diet. She seeks calcium through calcareous grit. The hen also seeks more protein than roosters. Her protein intake increases to a June peak of 14.6 percent when the she is producing eggs. The rooster reaches a peak of 12.8 percent in April when he is building sexually. And chicks up to 4 weeks really select insects (90% of diet) to meet their 27% protein needs for growth.
Where do hens take their chicks during the summer months? First, she will find cover with adequate insects. In Nebraska, she takes them into weeds, grass, sweet clover, and small grain stubble during July and August. Many hens are also found near tree and shrub cover. The hen finds more insects outside of tree cover, but woody cover is considered valuable to the chicks as shade in hot weather. Illinois noted that the summer shade benefit offered by woody cover might be more important than its winter cover benefit. The hotter the weather, the more pheasants will use woody cover. Nebraska found that small trees and shrubs were utilized more frequently than tall trees or hedgerows.
The summer shade that trees provide, as well as the accompanying cooler ground temperatures within woody cover, may be very important to pheasant chicks. The chick's metabolic rate and heat production is 2.4 times that of an adult. This makes keeping cool even more difficult for the chick. Of the chicks hatched last spring, 33 to 48 percent are dead by late August. The exact reasons for such high losses are unknown. But these losses might be even higher in areas lacking good woody cover for shade.
During the hot, dry days of August, folks ask if pheasants need standing water to survive? It depends on how hot. Through most of the growing season, the birds can survive on the moisture they consume in insects, and in morning dew on vegetation. Standing water is not needed. But if humidity levels are low enough, and if the temperature hot enough, no morning dew will be formed. Standing water may become important. Although the moisture in insects may pick up the slack, what happens when most of the insects are killed by chemical spraying? Answer ... unknown! Also consider that the main pheasant range in such dry states as Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah are along water ways or in irrigated areas. Are pheasants there because of the standing water available, or because such moist areas grow the better habitat and food?
In August, pheasant chicks are starting to grow their second set of feathers. All bird species molt twice before their first winter. Their down feathers at hatching, called “natal plumage”, are replaced with dull brown feathers called the "juvenile plumage." After hatching, pheasant chicks immediately begin growing flight feathers, and are capable of short flights at 2 weeks. In July (3 to 4 weeks old), they have replaced all down with feathers looking like a hen. Pheasant chicks, in August (6 to 8 weeks old), begin the "post juvenile molt", which will give them adult colored feathers at 17 to 18 weeks old (late October).
While adult pheasants and grouse grow new feathers once a year, ducks and songbirds do it twice. Pheasants simply replace the old with a new set of the same color. The hen starts this molt after the chicks hatch and will complete it in October. The rooster will complete his change this month, August. The pheasant loses and will grow one wing feather at a time, and is never flightless. Most ducks lose all wing feathers and are flightless. Once feathered with all brown plumage, ducks will immediately begin growing colored feathers again. Biologically there is no advantage to having two molts a year.
"Diseases and Parasites"
Diseases are not considered to be a major limiting factor for pheasant populations. Wild birds are free of many common poultry diseases such as coccidiosis, cohlera, and blackhead. During years of high mosquito infestations, birds are susceptible to equine encephalitis as indicated by antibodies in their blood. Intestinal parasitic worms and cecal worms are found in a third of wild birds. An occasional tapeworm is also found. Ectoparasites (those outside the body) consist mainly of mites, with the average bird having over 100. Few ticks are found on pheasants.
While the wild population seems to be relatively safe from common poultry diseases, there is an ever growing concern about the stocking of domestically raised birds. Such birds are raised under poultry condition where disinfecting the facility and providing medicated feed are extremely important to protect the birds from disease outbreaks. Unfortunately though, these protected and often carrier birds are released into the wild to infect the unprotected wild pheasants.
"Soil to Grow Pheasants"
Why do pheasants survive well in one area and not another? Research has evaluated the effects of weather and habitat on bird distribution, but these do not always provide an answer. "I have a good population while a friend 40 miles away has few birds.... same weather....same habitat." Different soil? In 1931 it was noted that the pheasant's main range was on the most recently glaciated land. By 1954 it was determined that calcium in the soil was important to the birds. Lower calcium meant lower bird numbers. But early 1960s research found that hens select grit high in calcium even in poor soils. So why are there not good populations in low calcium areas? In 1969, research noted that calcium poor soils were often high in lead, cadmium, zinc, and barium... elements toxic to birds. Calcium blocks the uptake of these elements. Selecting high calcium grit may protect the hen from the toxic elements during the nesting season, but she is not protected the rest of the year.
August is a good month for observing pheasant broods along roads. It is not uncommon to see one hen with two broods. Both her own? Physically impossible! Probably adopted one brood. In most cases the ages of the two broods differ by only a couple weeks. A couple weeks are not enough time to produce another family. After the first nest hatches, it would take a minimum of 7 weeks before she could hatch another nest. And who is taking care of the first chicks while the hen is setting on the second nest? Also remember that after the first nest the hen is at her worst physical condition of the year. She's too pooped to produce a second batch of chicks. She will adopt another brood though if the other hen is missing.
Through July the roosters were dropping feathers and re-growing a complete new set. In August, hens are doing the same thing. So why don't you see feathers lying on the ground, everywhere? Birds and mice! The small body feathers are easily swallowed by pheasants, and the larger feathers are eaten by rodents. Perhaps the feathers provide trace elements needed by the animals. Feathers are also used by other birds in building their summer nests. Rodents also feather their homes.
August is a good month for observing pheasant broods along roads. It is not uncommon to see one hen with two broods. Both her own? Physically impossible! Probably adopted one brood. In most cases the ages of the two broods differ by only a couple weeks. A couple weeks are not enough time to produce another family. After the first nest hatches, it would take a minimum of 7 weeks before she could hatch another nest. And who is taking care of the first chicks while the hen is setting on the second nest? Also remember that after the first nest the hen is at her worst physical condition of the year. She's too pooped to produce a second batch of chicks. She will adopt another brood though if the other hen is missing.
Through July the roosters were dropping feathers and re-growing a complete new set. In August, hens are doing the same thing. So why don't you see feathers lying on the ground, everywhere? Birds and mice! The small body feathers are easily swallowed by pheasants, and the larger feathers are eaten by rodents. Perhaps the feathers provide trace elements needed by the animals. Feathers are also used by other birds in building their summer nests. Rodents also feather their homes.
By Ken Solomon
The lazy months of September and October provide a well deserved rest for the hens. After the rigors of mating, producing 30 to 50 eggs, incubating a clutch, brooding young, and losing and regrowing feathers, the hens need a rest. In contrast, the cocks have been taking it easy since late July when they finished molting their feathers. Also consider that the cocks had no incubation or brood-rearing responsibilities. The hen, though, has lost 25 percent of her body weight since April. In September she has reached her lowest weight (1.9 lbs) and her lowest body fat content of the year. Since the amount of body fat is a good indicator of overall body condition, the hen is in her worst condition of the year. Many believe that this situation occurs during the cold winter months, but the reproductive process often causes more stress than even Old Man Winter.
"No Chicks to Raise"
The chicks produced last spring will stay with the hen until they are 10 weeks old then start moving off on their own. Like your own children, their independence grows with adolescence, and they soon leave home. The hen is now free from the demands of raising her young and can start caring for herself. It is time to start preparing for winter. The first thing to happen after the young are gone is the expanding of her home territory. When brooding her chicks the hen used 37 acres around her nest, but by September her territory doubles to 71 acres. It is unknown whether this expansion is caused by her increased energy demands, or just by the joyous freedom of having no young to raise.
"Adult Food Intake"
With daily temperatures decreasing, it is important that both cocks and hens begin conditioning the bodies for the freezing months to come. In order to accomplish this, they must consume more energy in order to produce muscle and body fat. Remember that the hen has lost a quarter of her weight since last spring. So the pheasant's food intake must increase during these months. During August, September and October the weight of the food in a pheasant's crop does increase about 20 percent over that in May, June and July.
A good portion of the pheasant's increased energy intake during September must go to producing feathers for the hen or producing fat for both hen and cock. Concerning feather production, the adult hen started molting her feathers in July and will have regrown her entire plumage by October (90 days). The energy cost of feather production to pheasants is unknown. However, for cowbirds, sparrows, and other songbirds, feather regrowth requires a 7.6 to 13.0 percent increase in energy intake. It is known though that when molting pheasants and nonmolting pheasants are stressed, the molting birds die sooner. So molting does place extra energy demands on the birds.
While young pheasants are still smaller than adults during September, the young consume as much food as the adults. Both the composition of the youngs' diet and their use of the energy are different from the adults. While the young consume only two-thirds as much crop grains as adults, they do consume nearly twice the amount of weed seeds, and over two and a half times the insects that adults do. This higher protein intake enables the young to continue their growth to adult size. In September, the adults use energy to produce feathers and fat, while the young use it to catch up with the adults. Insects constitute an important part of a growing pheasant's diet. When only 2 to 6 weeks old, the chick's diet is 36.3 percent insects. At this age the young are growing at their fastest rate. As they approach adult size, their growth rate decreases, and so does their consumption of insects. In September, insect consumption has decreased to 22.0 percent. This is still higher than the adult's insect consumption of 8.3 percent.
"Chick Mortality and Food Consumption"
While the adult pheasants are taking it easy and preparing for winter, what are the young birds doing? Last spring's chicks are 11 to 19 weeks old during September and October. Of the 9.2 chicks hatched from each nest in June, 35 percent have already died. Nebraska found a 39 percent loss of chicks by September. This mortality may actually approach 50 percent, and the reasons for it are unknown.
Those young that do survive to September have been growing rapidly since their mid- June hatching, and will reach adult size in October. During these months they consume from 59 to 68 grams of food per day. This means that in only 15 weeks they have increased their food consumption 8.8 times from the 8 grams at one week old. Of course this increase has been necessary to meet the increased maintenance energy requirements of an ever larger body.
In September, many animals are preparing to leave their breeding ranges and migrate to warmer climates. While morning dove have started south, lark buntings are in Texas already, and waterfowl are gathering in migratory flocks, pheasants plan to spend the winter with you. Migration occurs for two reasons: availability of food, and furnace efficiency. If a bird's foods will be covered by snow and ice, that bird had better go to a climate where food is available. Even if food is available for the winter, air temperatures may get too low. Each bird species has a specific furnace (metabolic rate) to keep it warm. The furnace of migratory birds can not produce enough heat if they stay north for the winter. Pheasants can find the grains they need to stay in your area, and the pheasants' furnace can supply the heat needed through sub-zero temperatures.
Wintering pheasants can be found far away from grain production areas. Here, survival depends on temperature. Pheasants can live on only weeds seeds through the winter if temperatures allow it. Mild temperatures mean their furnace need not be stoked with high energy grains.
Fault bars on pheasant wing and tail feathers were once thought to indicate levels of stress on the birds. Research found these bars to be normal feather markings, not deserving the name "stress bars." With the first rooster you harvest this fall, examine the longest tail feather by holding it up to the sky or a light. The stiff shaft that runs up the center of the feather is called the rachus. The soft, interlocking vanes that run upward and outward from the rachus are called the barbs. Sometimes there will be a fault bar running 900 to the barbs. It looks like the barbs were folded across the grain, and you can still see the crease. And that is exactly what it is, a crease.
During the pheasant's molt, the barbs are growing in a feather follicle. Like flower petals in a bud, the barbs are tightly packed together. For unknown reasons the barbs may become folded, thus leaving a crease across the barbs. It was once thought that the more stress (feeding or physical) the pheasant was under during the summer molt, the more fault bars would be seen. Not true!
Ever wonder why the pheasant you just shot and cleaned has scales on the lower end of the drum stick, and over the entire lower leg and foot? It relates back to the pheasants' (and all other birds') first known evolutionary step away from the reptiles. It was "Archaeopteryx." Part bird and part reptile, Archy had bird characteristics like feathers, hollow bones, and being partially warm-blooded. Its reptile characteristics were clawed wings and feet, scaled head/legs/feet, lizard-type skull structure, and sharp teeth. Even with feathers Archy could not fly. He probably used the clawed feet and wings to climb trees, and then used feathered wings and tail to glide and steer downward. The teeth indicate a meat diet, probably small mammals and lizards since Archy was only the size of a pigeon.
"Hunting Effects on Roosters"
The goal of pheasant management is to provide the public with maximum recreational opportunity, and to leave enough brood stock for spring reproduction. Ideally, 90% of the fall roosters could be removed leaving a sex ratio of 1 rooster per 10 hens, adequate roosters for reproduction. Even the high harvest states have a spring sex ratio between 1:2 (50% removal) and 1:4 (75% removal). More birds could have been placed in your freezer. Hunters normally harvest 45% to 65% of the roosters. States estimate that an additional 10% are lost to crippling, so total roosters removed from the population is 55% to 75%.
Habitat also effects rooster harvest. Inadequate cover concentrates birds and helps remove a larger portion of the roosters. Large habitat areas, like unharvested fields, though make roosters tougher too bag (Wooley 91).
"Effects of Hunting Restrictions"
Research in Minnesota (MN) and Iowa (IA) shows that restrictive seasons have no measurable effects on future pheasant numbers. Biologist made yearly state to state comparisons, over 20 years, of pheasant number data in similar habitat and weather areas (lower 2 tiers of MN counties and upper 2 of IA). During the 20 years, MN's daily limit was 1 less, and season length half that of IA. When sever winter weather reduced the population, MN closed their season for 4 years. IA did not. Despite the differences, the 2 states had mirror image population trends. MN was not stock piling birds by restricting harvest.
During the 4 closed seasons, MN had to yield to an uncomprehending public. "We must stop hunting so the bird population can grow." It did not grow more than IA's! Instead MN hunters lost 2.4 million hours of recreation and 400,000 roosters in their bag (Wooley 91).
"Timing of Hunting Season"
Next month, pheasant hunting seasons begin nationwide. Have you ever wondered why most pheasant seasons start in early to mid October? Most hunters think it's just tradition that their season starts the 2nd or 3rd Saturday of October. But how did that tradition get started? Your opening day may have been determined by crop harvest, landowner tolerance, chick age, or all of the above. In northern states, row crops are harvested in October. As harvest decreases available cover, birds congregate in remaining cover, making hunting easier. A season set too early often irritates landowners as hunters walk through and damage unharvested grains. Landowner tolerance also effects how many different hunting seasons overlap. With chores to be done, how would you like to be interrupted numerous times a day answering calls and visits from deer, grouse, turkey, pheasant and duck hunters? To effectively harvest more roosters, it is important that hunters be able to tell a young rooster from a hen. Flying chicks are identifiable as roosters at 14 weeks old and fully colored at 18 (late October, depending on time of hatch).
By Ken Solomon
During September and October, the pheasant's food intake increases for both hens and roosters. The types of food they consume also change. Pheasant food habits show a rapid increase in corn consumed, while the intake of oats, barley, and wheat continues the decline started last July. This change is due mainly to the availability of each food. The small grains were harvested in July and August, and were a major part of the bird's diet at that time. But soil tillage, and the sprouting and rotting of this grain has decreased the amount available in October. Corn harvest though begins in late September, and makes waste corn now available to the birds. This change is good for pheasants. They need more energy to improve their body condition for winter, and corn does have more metabolizable energy (3,430 kcal/kg) than wheat (2,800), oats (2,500), or barley (2,640).
Protein digestion supplies the amino acids necessary for pheasants to build and maintain good body condition. While corn is a major part of the October diet, it is only 8.8% protein. The wheat eaten last August was 14.1% protein. With the diet shift from small grains in August to corn in September and October, the pheasant must make up for the decrease in protein intake. During October, though, pheasants consume more weed seeds than at any other time of the year (mainly because there are more weed seeds available at this time). Fortunately, certain weed seeds contain more protein and fat than commercial cereals. South Dakota and Nebraska found sunflowers and foxtail to be the most eaten seeds. With the protein content of sunflowers being a high 45.5 percent (2,320kcal/kg), the pheasant can get the protein needed for body repair. The wild sunflowers which were in the roadsides last June, but were mowed or sprayed in July, could have helped your pheasants get ready for this winter.
Because daily temperatures are decreasing, one might think that the additional food consumed in October would be used to keep the bird warm. Not yet! It goes to fat production. This is because outdoor temperatures around 40 degrees F. are still within the pheasant's "thermoneutral zone." Thermoneutral means a range of temperatures in which the bird does not need to consume more or less energy in order to survive. The exact zones for pheasants are unknown, but let us say it is 40 to 104 degrees. As temperatures fall to 40 degrees, the pheasant can keep warm without increasing its energy intake. It simply ruffles its feathers or roosts in protective cover...much like you would wear a sweater or stay out of the wind to keep warm. Remember that the pheasant has no more feathers now then it had last spring. So at a temperature below 40 degrees, the bird must start consuming more energy to stay warm. Last August, when temperatures hit 104 degrees (upper limit of the thermoneutral zone), the pheasant increased it energy intake to keep cool. His air-conditioning though proved very dangerous.
During September and October, the pheasant's food intake increases for both hens and roosters. Most of the increase goes to the production of fat. Fat reserves are located along the breast muscles and around the internal organs (visceral fat). The hen's breast fat increases from 0.3 grams to 6.0 grams from September to October. The amount of visceral fat also increases dramatically. This 20 fold increase in fat in less than two months shows the urgency with which the hen must prepare for winter. The 0.3 grams in September was the hen's lowest fat weight of the entire year. Therefore, October is the first month the hen has actually gained any weight since last April. Motherhood was tough!
The chicks finally reach adult size and weight in October. While the same size, they must consume more energy than their parents, because the chicks are still molting their feathers. As the hunting season opens, most young roosters have replaced all their brown body feathers with the adult-colored feathers. However, close examination of the chick's three outermost flight feathers (the long feathers on the wings) show that they are still growing (blue, blood filled shafts). Remember that the adult rooster finished his molt last July, so in October his flight feathers are not growing. This is one way of telling if you harvested a tender young bird or a tough old bird. The length of the young rooster's outer three feathers can also tell you how old (in weeks) the bird is, when it hatched, and when incubation started. State game agencies use a wing gauge to translate flight feather length into bird age.
"Hunter Bag Check"
State game agencies collect data through the year to monitor the pheasant population - spring crowing counts, summer brood counts, and winter sex ratio counts. You, the hunter, also collect pheasant data. October is pheasant hunting, and most states conduct their "hunter bag checks" during the first week of the season. Besides assuring that you are not taking more than a legal limit, game officers and biologists also age your birds. By aging your roosters, they can figure the dates of last spring's peak hatch, and determine the ratio of young to old roosters.
Knowing the dates of the peak pheasant hatch, the state learns more about the effects of spring weather on hatching. How long did the early ice storm delay nesting? Did late May's two-week rain drown the nests or simply delay the starting of nests? When a nest hatches often determines how well that hen and her chicks will survive next winter. From the roosters' young-to-old-ratio, the state can calculate how many of the spring chicks survived to hunting season. It also allows evaluation of productivity. If the ratio is higher this year than last year, more chicks were produced this year than last.
"Age of That Rooster"
You shot your limit of roosters today. Are they young birds or old? Will they be tender to the fork, or pressure cooker tough? Like state biologists, you too may want to age your roosters. October roosters may be aged by examining their wings feathers. Stretch a wing outward from the bird's body. See the 10 inner, and the 10 outer most flight feathers? The outer feathers are called "primaries", and they tell the bird's age. Primaries are molted (replaced) in an orderly and timely manner. First, the inner most (shortest) primary, number 1, drops out. When the new feather growing in 1's spot is half grown, number 2 drops out. When number 1 is 3/4 grown, 2 is 1/2 grown, and 3 drops out. This sequence proceeds through all 10 primaries. During the first week of the hunting season, most young roosters are working on 8, 9, and 10. If you get a wing gauge from your state game agency, it will use the length of the outer most growing primary to tell you the week the rooster hatched last spring. If 8, 9 and 10 are fully grown, then that bird is over one year old, and may need the pressure cooker. There is no way to tell a one year bird from a two or three year bird.
"Effect of Hunting"
State regulations, which set your pheasant season, hope to accomplish two goals. The first is to provide the public with the maximum amount of recreation without harming the bird population. This is done through examining brood survey data, winter sex ratio data, effects of hunter pressure, and effects of season length. Seasons currently range from 9 to over 65 days. Through this year's pheasant surveys, states know the population size. To estimate hunter pressure, the state relies on past hunter trends. Past information shows the effect of bird numbers, bag limits, season lengths, cost of licenses, and even weather on hunter turn out.
The second goal is to cull the roosters to a level where they will not compete with hens for winter feed, and where they will not compete among themselves during the breeding season. During cold, snowy conditions when food is scarce, roosters will chase hens away from good feeding areas. When roosters are setting up their spring breeding territories, too many roosters means they will spend more time fighting each other than courting hens.
"Hunting Season Length"
It seems the public and state are always at odds when determining the pheasant season length. The public is more conservative. When bird numbers are low, the public wants no season, while the state a short season. Closing the season does not allow birds to be stock piled, nor expand their distribution. The population changes in non-hunted South Dakota counties were similar to those in adjacent hunted counties. Population trends between adjacent Minnesota (hunted) and Iowa (not hunted) counties were similar. Like a corn crop, the roosters can be harvested even when the overall crop is small.
When birds are high, the state wants to extend the season while the pubic says "No way!" Extending the season a week or two has little effect on the number of birds harvested. More will be harvested, but the number is small compared to the season's start. Harvest information shows that 70 to 90 percent of all the roosters harvested, are shot the first 9 days of the season. The number of hunters decreases through the season. So extending the season gives those few hunters additional recreational opportunity while removing only a few more birds from the pheasant population.
"Time of Death?"
You are hunting, and find a dead rooster that was shot. When did it die? Estimating the time of death is an important law enforcement tool for state game agencies, and can be used by you. Time is determined by appearance of 1) the pheasant's eyes, 2) rigormortis, and 3) body temperature. First....eyes. The kill day, eyes remain normal except for a hazy film, giving the pupil a light purple color (usually shiny black). By day two, the eyes are opaque and depressed. Using the eyes works well if outdoor temperatures are 40-70°F. Second....rigor-mortis. Within one to two hours after death, the wing and leg muscles are stiff. They remain rigid through the day of death, but are flexible again the second day. This works best when outdoor temperatures are 50-70°F. Third....body temperature. Abdominal cavity temperature is taken through the cloaca. On an 80°F day, the pheasant is 103°F one hour after death, and 81°F at 16 hours. On a 20°F day, the bird is 97°F at 1 hour, and 26°F at 16 hours. The rate of heat loss is effected by whether the bird was molting, gutted at death, plucked, or setting in a warm vehicle.
You just shot your first fall rooster. Let's discuss two unproven aging methods, and then next time consider what really works. 1) Breast Cartilage - My Grandfather had his own, not so scientific, method of aging roosters. When dividing the birds with hunting companions, he would feel the cartilage at the tip of the breast bone. If the cartilage was stiff... "One for you.”... If soft and pliable... "One for me." Funny, Grandpa's birds were always tender. 2) Lower Jaw - This is accepted by some game mangers. Try holding the rooster only by the tip of its lower bill (thumb inside mouth, forefinger underneath bill tip). Now with the bird dangling below your hold, open the bird's mouth as wide as possible by turning the lower bill 90o to the dangling body. On an old bird, the bill will support the weight. On a young bird, the bill will bend or may even break.
By Ken Solomon
"Finding Winter Cover"
November is here and the first winter snows threaten. With the first real breath of winter, pheasants begin to drift toward thicker cover. If shelterbelts, wetlands, idle grass areas, and crop fields are properly located, the pheasant need not move far to find protection. Ideally these cover types should be located within 0.2 miles of each other. The farther the bird has to travel, the worse the winter habitat. In Wisconsin adult cocks need move only 0.4 miles from their breeding area to find this winter cover, while in Illinois and Michigan they need travel 2.0 and 3.0 miles, respectively. On average, if the cock moves 0.4 miles, the hen will move 0.6 miles, and young birds 1.6 miles. Where winter cover is not properly spaced, pheasants will move greater than 10 miles. Unfortunately, when winter cover is this sparse, birds must use more energy locating it. Once found though, this sparse cover is subject to over crowding and overuse before spring.
"Needing More Food"
While pheasants are finding the winter cover they require, the outdoor temperatures have fallen below the bird's thermoneutral zone. That is, they can no longer simply ruffle their feathers to stay warm....they have to start eating more food. In fact, they consume 33 percent more food in November than they did in October. This increased food intake is used to both stay warm and to produce body fat (for insulation and energy storage). While you and I can put on a coat or just stay indoors to stay warm, the birds have only one set of clothing and must eat more. Not only is the pheasant forced to use this increase energy intake to insure current survival through warmth, it must eat enough extra to insure future survival through fat production. These fat reserves though will prove beneficial when the first blizzard arrives.
The availability of certain foods has changed since last summer, and pheasants must change their food habits to meet their higher energy needs. The waste grains of summer have sprouted, rotted, or been plowed under. Grains like barley, wheat, and oats now constitute only 3 percent of the pheasant’s diet. The use of these grains is replaced by corn, since it is harvested from October to December. In fact corn attains its highest use in December when it is 77 percent of the bird's diet. At this time, when birds need more energy to survive, a corn diet has a third more metabolizable energy than a small grain diet.
During early winter the amount of weed seeds and insects consumed decreases from the fall months. Wild sunflowers which were 9 percent of the fall diet are only 2 percent now. The decrease is due to seed availability, not to a change of preference by the pheasant. While insects were once 16 percent of the diet, they now 2 percent. This winter diet of insects is limited to dead remains.
Suddenly the first winter storm arrives. The misty rain turns to ice and covers every twig and blade of grass, changing to snow by evening and accompanied by wind. The hen's food supply may be unreachable for two days. However, her body fat can help her. By the first of December her body fat is 9 percent of her weight, or about 98 grams. Since each gram contains 7.0 kcal of usable energy, the hen is carrying a storehouse of 687 kcal metabolizable energy. This is enough canned energy to keep her warm for nearly 3.5 days. Of course she will be hungry when the blizzard passes, but at least she has survived. If you could chose when to have blizzards, pick November as they have the least effect on the birds. In November the birds have ample fat, and the ice and snow will probably thaw to free food supplies. Fat reserves will be low, and snows are less likely to melt after a blizzard in December, January or February.
With colder temperatures and higher energy needs, is there enough food available to keep the pheasants warm? In 1947 South Dakota estimated that 35 million bushels of waste grain were available to pheasants in November. The pheasant population was 8.0 million. But more efficient farming practices and machinery have lowered the amount available today. This may be yet another reason for our current low bird numbers. Food plots left standing for pheasants would increase the number of birds surviving to breed next spring. Corn or grain sorghum areas 2 to 5 acres in size should provide enough energy to maintain 50 to 150 birds through the winter. Unfortunately the waste grain from last fall's harvest has been tilled under, is lying on the ground, and will be covered with ice and snow by mid winter. What the pheasant needs is standing grain ... above the soil, ice, and snow.
Pheasants would also consume more wild sunflower seeds during winter if they were available. Unfortunately the spraying of roadsides, railroad right of ways, and set aside acres eliminates this valuable energy source.
"Hunt Field Edges"
Pheasants are tied very closely to farms with a high number of good field edges. So, it makes sense to hunt such farms and to hunt those edges. Edges are the transition zones between different cover types, and the most successful hunters will concentrate their efforts there. Regardless of the size of a field, most birds will be within 40 feet of its edge.
Biologists often call the pheasant an "edge" bird, because the bird likes to spend much of its time near the edges of farm fields. A farm can be evaluated as to how good it is for pheasants by determining its number of field edges. Using aerial photos of the farm draw 5 lines through the farm that intersect at the farm's center. Now count each time a line crosses from bad-to-good or good-to-good fields. Do not count from one corn field to another, from farm field to a mowed roadside, or from a farm field to a grazed shelterbelt or to a drained wetland. Add the edges for all 5 lines, divide by 5, and you have that farm's "interspersion index." The higher this index, the more potential you have for a good pheasant population.
During the hunting season, hunters harvest only the birds that fly. If only the runners survive the season, will we in a few years have only runners? Can't shot them on the ground! If each pheasant in the population was strictly a flyer or strictly a runner, in only 10 years all birds would be fliers. Genetically, this is based on - knowing that each year over 50% of the roosters (mainly fliers) are killed - assuming that half of the hens are either fliers or runners - assuming no differential winter mortality between fliers and runners - and applying a couple genetic principles. Runners every where in 10 years, but it does not happen!
Forty years ago your Grandfather had the same worry about runners, but we still harvest over half the roosters each year, and they are all flying. So pheasants are not strictly fliers or strictly runners. Consider though that it is easier for today's rooster to run than it was 40 years ago. With no foxtail millet under the corn, running is easier. There is no hindrance running through a tree plot with no under story of grass, across an overgrazed pasture, or across sunflower-free roadsides.
Could there be a hen pheasant season? The hunting public says a definite "No!" Why kill the hens that will produce future birds? Pheasant biologists disagree among themselves about a hen season. Legal hen shooting in Wisconsin found that harvesting less than 20-25 % of the hens did not lower future pheasant numbers. But Montana found that up to 45 % of the hens could be harvested with no measurable adverse effects upon next year's population. Sound pheasant management is based on solid biological facts. Because biologists do not agree on a hen season, no hen season will be requested. Season regulations state that only roosters will be shot. Whether by accident or on purpose, hens are killed each year. Iowa estimates that 9% of the fall population of hens is killed, South Dakota 9-13%, Minnesota 6-11%, Wisconsin 16%, and Nebraska 0-14%. These amounts are not considered serious, however, since they are only a fraction of the annual turnover loss which normally takes at least half of each year's hens. In any case, don't shot hens and become a better shot. Of the birds surviving the hunting season, 24% of the roosters carry lead shot, and 3% of the hens carry shot. "Hunter Check Stations - Biological Data"
Check stations are set up the first and second weekends of the hunting season in 45% of the pheasant states. Such stations are meant for 1) law enforcement, and for collection of 2) hunter success information, and 3) biological data. Of these states, only Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska collect biological data by aging roosters at their check stations. By knowing this fall's age ratio (# young roosters shot to each adult shot), state managers can calculate a fall index of the reproductive success. The mathematics involves dividing this fall's age ratio by last winter's sex ratio (# hens per rooster). Result? If 2.0, the bird population is stable. Above or below 2.0 indicates an increasing or decreasing population. You can collect both winter sex ratio data, and fall rooster shot age ratio on your own land to see how your population is doing.
"Survival until Fall?"
Of the pheasant chicks produced on your land last spring, how many have survived to the fall hunt? Let's say that when you kept track of broods last July that you found each hen had an average of 8 chicks. This production was good, but you wondered how many would survive until fall? The percent survival to fall = ((F/W) x 2)/B) 100. Where F=fall age ratio, W=winter sex ratio, and B=brood size.
First, how many young roosters were shot for each adult shot on your land (fall age ratio)? Let's say 9 young shot per adult. Now divide this by how many hens you saw last winter for each rooster (winter sex ratio). Let's say it was 6 hens per rooster. So 9/6=1.5 Multiply this by 2 to get fall chicks per hen. So 1.5x2=3.0 Remember? - your July broods had 8 chicks per hen. Going from 8 last summer to 3 this fall means only 37% of the chicks survived to fall. Maybe it was those record high temperatures in August.
By Ken Solomon
During the first of December, pheasant hens are continuing the weight gain they started last September. She has increased from a low of 861 grams (1.9 lbs) to 1094 grams (2.4 lbs). Imagine yourself increasing your body weight 27 percent in just two months. Although easy for some of us, most would find it difficult to do. But the hen has to do it so rapidly in order to survive the colder months to come. Most of the hen's gain is in fat not muscle. The amount of her breast fat tripled by mid November and will have increased six fold by mid December. Fat is the most convenient and efficient storage form of energy, because 1) it contains at least twice the caloric value of either carbohydrates or protein, 2) it takes less energy to convert food energy into fat, and 3) fat takes less energy to metabolize than muscle..
"Short Winter Days"
Even when food is not a winter problem, the amount of daylight is a problem. In September pheasants had more than 12 daylight hours to dine at leisure, while December provides only 9 hours. A 3 hour difference in winter may not seem like much, but it means consuming 20 percent more food in 25 percent less time, and surviving frigid nights that are 25 percent longer.
To consume the required energy in a shorter day, the pheasant must change its feeding behavior. During a summer sunrise, only 36 percent of the birds have had breakfast. In December, 88 percent have eaten by sunrise. Feeding in early winter is also more intense. The weight of the food in the bird's crop is 7.78 grams in the morning. This is 2.2 times more that on a summer morning (3.49). Their crop during a winter afternoon contains 2.7 times more food that during a summer afternoon. In summer 52 percent are feeding heavily at sunset, compared to 78 percent during a winter sunset. Time is precious in winter.
"Long Cold Nights"
Winter nights are a freezing 15 hours long, and it is certain the pheasant will be ravenous by breakfast time. The 10 grams of food in its crop at bedtime passed through the crop in four to five hours. When the crop is empty, the pheasant still has 10 hours of darkness until breakfast.
During these long nights, the availability of roosting habitat is extremely important to the pheasant. This habitat is the idle grassland or wetlands cover where birds spend their nights. The quality (thickness and height) of this habitat determines how much energy the birds need to stay warm ... in the same way that the quality of your windows and insulation determines how many cords of wood you will need to stay warm. Without good roosting cover in which to spend their winter nights, the birds must use more fat to survive until breakfast. A couple weeks of cold, 15-hour nights without roosting will kill all pheasants.
Food habits and feeding behavior during early winter are the same for both young and old birds. When the Christmas turkey is fat and juicy brown, and when your favorite fishing lake frozen enough to skate on, that young pheasant hatched in suntan weather last summer has reached its maximum weight. In fact, the young hen weighs 13 percent more than the adult hen. Perhaps nature is giving the young a better chance for winter survival. Whereas the young pheasant equaled adult food intake in September (12 weeks old), equaled adult weight in early October (16 weeks), and equaled adult plumage in late October (20 weeks), they reach adult maturity in December (25 weeks). The growth of their heart, liver, lungs, thyroid, and kidneys continue into late December, when the young bird is finally an adult in every way an adult.
When cleaning the pheasant you just shot, you may notice a few ectoparasites (external parasites). Four species of mites and six lice species like pheasants. Mites can average over 100 per bird, with numbers decreasing from June to September. They are not really harmful to the bird as they feed only on the feathers. Where bare soil can be found, pheasants often dust themselves to keep lice and mites at bay. South Dakota did find an occasional tick on pheasants, but it was not the lyme disease carrying species.
Three kinds of endoparasites (internal parasites) frequent most pheasants. These helminths (wormlike) are cecal worms, tapeworms, and intestinal nematodes (long, thin worms). Over one third of the birds will have a resident population of these worms. Such worms do not significantly contribute to losses of wild pheasants. With confined birds though, they can reach such numbers as to seriously affect the birds' health. As with all harvested game animals, the rule is to clean, wash, and cook the bird well.
December brings freezing temperatures and snow. A pheasant's lower legs are not covered with feathers. So does he get cold legs and feet? Yes, but why? Some believe cold legs are caused by so much of the blood's heat being lost through the bare legs. Others believe that some mechanism in the upper leg (feathered thigh) conserves heat by removing some blood heat before going to the lower leg - so cooler blood makes them colder then the rest of the body. Too bad the pheasant does not have the willow ptarmigan's feathered legs. Ptarmigan live in much colder climates than pheasants, and need the added protection.
Mother always said if your feet were cold you should put on a hat. The pheasant has no hat, so he will, under cold conditions, sleep and rest with his head partially placed under his wing feathers. It helps cut his loss of body heat. Ptarmigan with warm, feathered legs need not sleep so. Sleeping ducks always seem to partially cover their heads even in mild temperatures. The duck's bare legs in water losses 4 times more heat than pheasant legs, so the duck has more need to conserve heat loss from the head (bill).
In December pheasants have started congregating in hen and in rooster flocks. All head for winter cover. Some day states may use Landsat satellite photos to map this winter habitat. Landsat is an EROS Data Center satellite. A state can be photographed in 3 to 5 orbits. To examine winter cover, pick the date when the area of interest has 100% snow cover, and is cloud free. EROS photos for that day can be blown to 1 inch per mile. All grass and woody cover above the snow cast shadows. On the black and white photos the shadows are various shades of gray, and indicate the types of cover: coniferous vs. deciduous tree stands, wetlands, unharvested crop fields, and farmsteads.
Unfortunately, the photos are only 85% accurate. Small wetlands can be confused with farmsteads. You can tell if the tree stand is coniferous, but what of the understory's condition? Was it grazed to nothing? EROS equipment can differentiate between 300 shades of gray, but no one knows which shades mean coniferous with understory and without understory. Studies comparing photos with actual ground measurements are needed. Also with better development techniques, the photos will become more useful.
"Why Food Plots?"
Planting food plots for pheasants has been emphasized by both Pheasants Forever and State Game agencies for years. Yet there is little research that has studied the benefits for the birds. While studying bobwhite quail, Kansas found that quail near food plots weighed more, had more fat, and more energy in their crops than quail far from a food plot. The fatter quail could survive 22.5 days at -4°F without feed, while the thinner birds survived only 3.3 days. Minnesota found that during a mild winter, turkeys near food plots weighed the same as those away from plots. But in a typical winter, turkeys near food plots had only 10% mortality, while turkeys away from the plots had 60%. No similar studies have been done with pheasants, but South Dakota is starting. Under persistent snow cover, pheasant weight loss has been documented. Studies in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Ontario noted that hens entering spring in poor condition delay laying eggs, have lower reproductive success, and increased summer mortality.
"What Kind of Food Plot?"
In many states, January pheasants consume more corn than any other food. So most people prefer to plant corn food plots. Corn contains 3.43 kcal/gram of energy for the birds. Do pheasants prefer corn to grain sorghum? Unknown! South Dakota is now studying which pheasants prefer. How do these compare to sunflowers, soy beans, or small grains? Again, unknown! Soy beans and small grains do provide birds with fall food, but not generally winter food. They are easily knocked down by rain, wind, and snow. With deep snows in northern states, the food must stand above the snow. So corn, sorghum, or sunflowers work best.
Variety may be the spice of life for pheasants too. Plant a mixture. The most common mixture is corn and grain sorghum planted in alternating rows. One elderly farmer planted 1/3 of his plot to forage sorghum, 1/3 to spring wheat, and 1/3 to alternating rows of corn, grain sorghum, and sunflowers. The birds spent their fall and winter nights in the forage sorghum (little food value). They ate the wheat as a fall food, and consumed the taller foods in winter. The taller foods also provided wind and predator protection for the birds.
"Food Plot Location?"
Food plots have always been considered only one of three parts necessary for good winter habitat... tree/shrub cover, idle grass cover, and food plots. Ideally these three should be adjacent to each other, not a mile or two apart. But often the landowner has trees here, a wetland over there, and some grass in the other section. So where should he put the food plot? South Dakota research has found that more pheasants will use a food plot when it is next to idle grass. Second choice was a plot next to a wetland, and third next to trees. Recall that pheasants like to spent these cold winter nights in grass or wetlands (as opposed to trees and shrubs), so having breakfast right next door to the bedroom is handy and saves energy (not having to fly a mile for breakfast). Also recall though that blowing snow can fill those grasslands and wetlands, forcing the birds into the trees and shrubs for cover...but now the food plot is way over by the snow filled grass. Instead of one 6 acre food plot next to your grass, how about 2 acres for the grass, 2 for the wetland, and 2 for the trees?
"Food Plot Size?"
The placement will often dictate their size. In many instances, landowners can not allocate large tracts of land. If smaller plots are needed, the amount of snow drifting into them can be lessened somewhat by establishing snow traps. This is easily accomplished by harvesting 12 rows just inside the outer 6 rows on the windward side. This is a good management practice on larger food plots as well, especially if they are to be harvested next spring.
Whenever possible, large food plots should be located next to winter cover on the windward side (generally the northwest). If this is not possible, effective food plots can be established nearby if they are linked via corridors or other escape cover to traditional winter covers. In the absence of any traditional winter cover, large 10-acre-plus blocks of corn may be planted to serve as both food and shelter for the birds.
"Food Plot Age?"
A two year old food plot? Consider planting a 5 acre food plot this year which will provide pheasants with feed next winter. Then the following spring replant only half of the 5 acres. While the replanted half is growing, the other half will grow to annual grasses which provides good habitat for the pheasant broods. Insects are attracted to the undisturbed half, and the hens bring the chicks for the insects. The grass and weeds in the old half provide good winter cover when the snow comes, and the other half has the food. Next spring plant the two year old half, and leave the one year old half alone.