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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1998

Each spring DNR staff and volunteers count the number of crowing rooster pheasants heard along prescribed routes.© Robert Queen

More pleasant for pheasant

Populations of a favorite game bird can recover if there's enough good habitat to go around.

Keith Warnke

Each spring DNR staff and volunteers count the number of crowing rooster pheasants heard along prescribed routes.

© Robert Queen
A renewed focus || Bring on the birds
A federal boon to wild pheasants
Why stock game farm pheasants? || Pheasants forever?

All species need one thing to survive: habitat. Without suitable food or cover, even the most prolific wildlife species cannot maintain a healthy population. To persist, habitat must be at the heart of any game management program.

Consider the ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus); once prolific, this grassland bird has declined as rural land uses changed in Wisconsin. These birds need three things:

  • good nesting and brood cover, such as permanent grasslands
  • adequate escape and winter cover, such as cattail marshes or stands of willow and red osier dogwood
  • a reliable winter food supply.

Suitable pheasant habitat has been shrinking in Wisconsin for the last 40-50 years, until recently.

Wild pheasants adapt readily to agricultural land if farming is not too intensive. But the wide fencerows that formerly provided good pheasant nesting and escape cover have been eliminated or reduced to narrow strips as farmers aimed to maximize production on every acre. Federal farm subsidies reduced the amount of idle or fallow lands by rewarding farmers for producing more crop. Gone were the weedy cornfields pheasants used for food and cover thanks to greater use of more effective herbicides.

Fall plowing of fields to get a jump on spring planting eliminated many winter food sources for pheasants. The development of early varieties of alfalfa (a key dairy crop and favored pheasant nesting habitat) enabled farmers to increase hay production and harvest earlier. The early harvest came at a time when the majority of pheasants were incubating eggs. Nests were inadvertently destroyed and nesting hens were killed. Mear time, pesticides killed insects that were important sources of food for pheasant chicks.

Another significant factor reducing pheasant habitat? Our large urban centers – Milwaukee, Madison, and the Fox River Valley cities – are located in prime pheasant range. As human populations increased, these cities and their suburbs spread into the outlying pheasant habitat.

After a peak harvest of 802,000 roosters in 1942, populations dropped steadily except for minor, momentary rises in the 1950s and early '70s. Stocking of farm-raised birds to bolster wild populations – a common practice in Wisconsin ever since Gustave Pabst (of beer brewing fame) stocked game birds in Waukesha County from 1910 through 1927 – couldn't keep pheasant numbers stable. By the 1960s, research showed pheasants bred from stock raised in captivity for several generations were not adapted to survive in the wild. Still, large numbers of birds survived through the late 1970s.

Then came a record severe winter in 1978-79 which caused pheasant populations to truly crash. The number of pheasant hunters dropped, too. By the 1980s, population trends predicted wild pheasants would disappear from Wisconsin by the end of the century.

A renewed focus

Something needed to be done to boost pheasant populations. The Department of Natural Resources, together with partners in the conservation community, developed a management plan in the late 80s to improve grassland habitat and increase winter cover for pheasants.

It was clear the plan would succeed only with the cooperation of private landowners – particularly farmers who owned large parcels of undeveloped grasslands. To provide a source of funds for wild pheasant management, the Legislature authorized the sale of pheasant stamps in 1992. Anyone hunting the birds in the pheasant management counties – those counties with the strongest pheasant populations and best habitat – had to purchase a pheasant stamp. Funds from the stamp sales help farmers, landowners, the Department of Natural Resources and conservation groups pay the costs of restoring and improving pheasant habitat.

The approximate $350,000 raised annually is used to lease grassland nesting cover, share the costs of keeping grasslands idle, grow grass on former cropland, plant winter food plots, and maintain existing habitat.

Seed planters, mowers and other pieces of equipment used to manage habitat have been purchased with stamp fees. And stamp revenue also pays for three DNR wildlife biologists who work with private landowners to restore pheasant populations and maintain habitat.

To date, tens of thousands of acres of habitat have been established, restored and maintained in the pheasant management counties. The DNR's Pheasant Advisory Committee, wildlife biologists, researchers and representatives of the Conservation Congress, Pheasants Forever, and Wings Over Wisconsin review and recommend which pheasant stamp projects should be funded.

Bring on the birds

Since 1988, DNR biologists have been raising and releasing wild pheasants to see if adding birds to suitable habitat would expand pheasant range and populations. Offspring of wild pheasants trapped in Iowa, and pheasants raised from wild eggs collected in China's Jilin Province, have been released at more than 20 sites in Wisconsin.

The wild Iowa birds are propagated in special pens at the Poynette Game Farm designed to minimize contact with humans. These truly wild pheasants are better adapted for survival once released. They display predator avoidance behaviors, in contrast to birds that have been raised in captivity for several generations.

Release sites are selected which have few birds now and have at least 8,000 contiguous acres with a proven mix of attributes pheasants need for survival – agricultural lands with high-quality nesting cover that are not subject to mowing, grazing or flooding. The site also must have suitable winter cover, like cattail marshes, and must be less than 15 percent forested.

A federal boon to wild pheasants

Wild pheasant populations in Wisconsin benefited greatly from the United States Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). CRP paid landowners to take marginal farmland out of production and establish wildlife cover on the property for a 10-year period. Hundreds of thousands of acres across the state were enrolled in CRP, many in primary pheasant range. As a result, pheasant populations rose steadily in the early 1990s in places like Rock County, where CRP was popular.

The original Conservation Reserve Program expired in 1995, and many of the grassland acres enrolled could have been returned to intensive agriculture. Fortunately, Congress reauthorized CRP in 1997, thanks in large part to support from outdoor enthusiasts. DNR staff spent thousands of hours helping farmers sign up for the program or stay in it. Today, Wisconsin has more than 600,000 acres enrolled in CRP.

Pheasants forever?

Since 1988, nearly 40,000 wild pheasants have been released to repopulate prime pheasant range. We'll track population trends to monitor program success. Stocking wild birds isn't the full answer to strengthening pheasant populations, but it appears successful where good habitat is available and there were no remnant pheasant populations. One of the original release sites, which had no birds in 1988, was stocked for only three years; it now has a stable population of 10 hens per square mile.

Even though the Department of Natural Resources targets pheasant stamp dollars to prime pheasant counties, we know that big improvements will require managing more parcels. DNR biologists work with conservation organizations and federal farm programs to stretch pheasant stamp dollars further through cost-sharing arrangements.

Partners such as Pheasants Forever and Wings Over Wisconsin are especially adept at raising matching funds and making habitat improvements on private lands. These conservation groups attract motivated volunteers and contribute funds to purchase equipment to get the work done. Rising pheasant populations in the last decade owe a great deal to their dedication and effort.

The Conservation Reserve Program will keep pheasant habitat improvements, including buffer strips, field windbreaks and shelterbelts, affordable to farmers for 10 more years.

Recent surveys have shown pheasant populations are responding to the improvements. Due to Wisconsin's more diverse landscape, large dairy economy, and an expanding number of rural homes, it's unlikely our pheasant populations will reach the densities seen in Iowa or South Dakota. But with a renewed focus on habitat, there is hope of a brighter future for Wisconsin pheasants and pheasant hunters.

Why stock game farm pheasants?

Pheasants on the farm. © DNR Photo.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has stocked pheasants for decades, and has sold hundreds of thousands of day-old pheasant chicks to conservation clubs throughout Wisconsin.

These stocking programs will never increase wild populations, but they do provide thousands of hunters who are unable to hunt wild pheasants on private lands, or don't choose to pay to hunt pheasants at a shooting preserve or game farm, with the chance to bag a bird.

This fall, about 50,000 pheasants will be released on public hunting grounds and wildlife management areas, and more than 60,000 day-old chicks will be available to clubs to raise and stock.

Keith Warnke is DNR's upland wildlife ecologist in the Wildlife Management program.