By Jerry Deal, Regional Habitat Manager
Idaho Department of Fish and Game - Southwest Region
Most pheasant hunters have a pretty good idea of what upland bird habitat looks like, at least where they want to hunt pheasants.
Imagine, however, how that same area looks to a pheasant, whose eye is only 10 inches from the ground. Consider how a pheasant views the world as it breeds, nests and raises chicks on a Fish and Game Wildlife Management Area (or WMA) in southern Idaho.
The primary limiting factor for pheasants is what biologists call cover, the diverse range of plant structure pheasants need for forage, to hide from predators, to stay warm and dry, and to raise a family. They need it in the right mix at the right time of year. Roosters, hens and chicks each have unique needs, but the local hiding cover must always be able to conceal them from raptors overhead and foxes and feral cats on the ground. Even heavier plant growth - such as thick cattail patches - may provide thermal cover as well as hiding cover when cold, wet storms pass. Much of what is essential cover from a pheasant's perspective may appear only as weeds to the hunter.
While hunter harvest is limited to cock pheasants, the WMA's habitat is managed to provide especially for the cover needs of hens and chicks. After all, hens must survive to raise chicks if roosters are to be produced. Blending with their surroundings is critical for hens to survive the three to four weeks they sit on nests. Since they are mostly brown, they need dry brown vegetation in which to build a nest, and depend on the concealment provided by residual vegetation to avoid predators. Those dead plants left over from last year play an important role for nesting pheasants.
Now that you have donned your pheasant spectacles, try and view the world from a newly hatched pheasant chick's perspective. Nesting cover must not be so thick that the young bird and its siblings are unable to pass through it. They must be able to navigate the maze of dead plant stems to nearby green plants and their abundance of insects. Pheasant chicks need considerable amounts of protein in their first weeks of life in order to grow, and insects are their meal ticket. As such, low, leafy plants (called forbs) - and the insect populations they attract - are essential for chick survival. These critical plant stands are often viewed as "weeds" by many people.
As winter gives way to spring, rooster pheasants begin their courtship displays, hoping to attract the attention of local hens. Here, the rooster encounters a dilemma. Display areas must be fairly open if hens are to pay notice, yet not so open that roosters become "sitting ducks." Display sites must be within about 20 feet of some type of escape cover. Tidy crop rows won't fit the bill for hiding cover unless they have other plants between the rows to block the ground-level view. Again, such areas may appear weedy to you, but they are ideal locations if you're a rooster pheasant looking for a mate.
As the primary predator for pheasants, hunters may not fully appreciate all of the cover they encounter at WMAs. Remember though, that some roosters need to make it through the year to breed in the spring, and some heavy cover allows for that survival.
Quality cover can be difficult for a hunting dog (or a hunter) to work through, but it makes life for a fox more challenging, too. And while a more orderly landscape might be more aesthetically pleasing to a hunter, such an area has no place in a pheasant's life, and thus, is of little value to the pheasant hunter.
As you scan the landscape of a local WMA, remind yourself to view it through the eyes of a ring-necked pheasant. I think you'll be delighted with what you see.