Habitat makes the difference, according to conservation group
Pheasant populations in northwest Wisconsin saw a nice bump this year, but winter could reverse that trend.
Local biologists regularly conduct population surveys across the state, which are used to estimate bird numbers in a given area. Counts in St. Croix, Pierce and Polk counties have seen positive returns recently, and areas even further north are also seeing good population gains. Access to quality habitat and a few back-to-back mild winters have a lot to do with the increase, but heavy snow this winter could set numbers back a bit.
As a general rule, the more days with snow on the ground during a winter, the higher pheasant mortality rates are. Combine heavy snow with extreme temperatures like the state saw in late January, and those rates can rise drastically. In a severe winter with poor habitat conditions, survival rates can be as low as 20 %.
“Birds are pretty tough, and they can endure some extreme conditions, but heavy winters do take their tole,” said Cody Tromberg, a senior Farm Bill Biologist with the conservation organization Pheasant Forever and Quail Forever, who works in St. Croix County. “The fear I have with this winter is we got so much snow early on, and it’s just persisting — that makes things pretty rough.”
It’s natural for hunters and land managers to worry about birds starving when the snow begins to stack up, but starvation during inclement weather is extremely rare. Freezing mortality and predation are much more common without access to good habitat. During harsh winters people are often temped to feed pheasants, deer and other wildlife to help them get through the coldest months. This begins with good intentions, but can actually exacerbate the challenges birds face.
“I don’t recommend supplemental feeding for multiple reasons,” said Ron Leathers, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s chief conservation officer. “Feeding pulls birds out of quality thermal cover, depleting energy reserves and adding to freezing mortality. Feeding locations can also quickly turn into a focal point for predation, and the threat of disease (avian flu and other risks) is a major concern, especially this year.”
The answer to all of these problems is — habitat. Feeding wild pheasants is futile and counterproductive, predator control has basically no long-term effect, but creating high quality cover is a game changer.
“If a private landowner in this area wants to help pheasants get through to spring, the most important thing he or she can do is plant some kind of winter cover,” Tromberg said.
Creating wetlands with thick, thermal cattail stands from scratch is very difficult for a number of reasons, but Tromberg said there are other kinds of winter cover that are very effective in this part of Wisconsin.
“We’ve been having really good luck with planting mixed conifer and shrub habitat,” he said. “The downside there is Wisconsin is also a really great deer state, so without tree protection on just about everything, the deer will demolish it. But, once it’s established it makes for ideal winter cover for pheasants.”
Tromberg said the conifers he plants are mostly spruce trees, and he recommends plum, dogwood and ninebark for shrubs. Ninebark in particular can work well since deer don’t browse it as badly as other shrubbery.
Wildlife populations are built to endure harsh winters, high mortality rates notwithstanding, and pheasants are no different. Numbers ebb and flow as years go by, but the one constant need these birds can’t live without is habitat. The more that’s implemented, the more birds will survive, according to Tromberg.
“We have a lot of good grass cover in the parts of Wisconsin with the highest numbers of pheasants, but we don’t have a ton of great winter cover,” he said. “So, if we can improve that across our area, it would really help the birds get through a winter like this.”
For landowners interested in planting or improving upland bird habitat on their property, Tromberg recommended looking into National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, which will be held at the Minneapolis Convention Center from February 17-19. Pheasant Fest is an annual celebration hosted by Pheasants Forever that showcases pretty much anything that has to do with upland hunting, from bird dogs to pollinator plots. A large part of the event is what’s call the “Habitat Help Desk,” where landowners can speak with biologists and other habitat pros to form land management plans or get help enrolling in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
“It’s a great resource,” said Tromberg. “So often landowners want to help, but they have questions about how to go about it. Pheasant Fest can help bridge that gap.”
Learn more about the event at www.PheasantFest.org.
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