Agencies work together to conserve wild pheasant populations

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Ring-necked pheasants
Ring-necked pheasants were the most popular game species in Ohio in the 1960s, when their numbers were believed to be between 4 and 5 million. (Pheasants Forever photo)

When it comes to pheasants, the Ohio Division of Wildlife and Pheasants Forever, Inc. are probably best known for releasing birds that provide hunting opportunities. But behind the scenes, they work together — and with other agencies, including the department of agriculture — to conserve wild pheasant populations.

“The state’s wild pheasant population from the ’40s through the ’60s was quite robust and was likely in the millions,” said Joseph Lautenbach, wildlife biologist for the division of wildlife. “As agricultural practices, land use and land development have changed, pheasant populations have declined. Now our spring surveys suggest there are now fewer than 15,000.” 

Those surveys, done in April and May, are called “crow counts.” Biologists and other staff do them in April and May when roosters are trying to attract females with their calls. Surveyors spend about two hours before and after sunrise, covering two routes a day with six stops each. At each stop, they listen for four minutes. 

“If a pheasant is in the area, you’ll most likely hear it in that amount of time,” Lautenbach said. 

The 149 routes they covered last spring were primarily in the Scioto River corridor in central Ohio and the northwest corner of the state, including Fulton, Williams and Defiance counties, where the largest populations of wild pheasants are located, he said. 

It’s probably no coincidence that the largest populations are in these areas. Of the tens of thousands of acres enrolled in USDA programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife partnership, the majority are in northwest and central Ohio. 

Pheasants do best in open areas with both grassland and cropland, Lautenbach said. Those programs help landowners achieve the right mix, with the right kinds of species, that benefit pheasants and other types of wildlife as well. 

Shared missions

Cody Grasser can vouch for that. Before he was hired last year as Ohio state coordinator for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, he was a farm bill wildlife biologist for those organizations. 

In addition to 30 chapters with nearly 4,900 members in Ohio, the organizations have a pretty large staff that includes 10 farm bill biologists, an ag and conservation specialist, a grassland and grazing coordinator and a regional representative. 

They work with USDA, the state and national division of wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ag co-ops and corporations to improve wildlife habitat — and ag profitability — on more than 20,000 acres each year. 

Their model to improve and increase habitat “relies on these partnerships and shared missions,” Grasser said. “They help us and we help them implement their programs, most of which are done on private land and mostly within the agricultural community.” 

“Any private landowner can get help with any wildlife or habitat project,” he said. “The biologist can assist in applying for financial assistance, help write the conservation plan and work with the landowner throughout the process of planting and establishing habitat.” 

That’s mostly grassland habitat, he said, although they do some wetland restoration and tree planting, too. Using native species whenever possible, they plant areas with a mixture of grass and flowers, clover, legumes and other species that provide cover for pheasants and quail as they are raising young. 

The vegetation also benefits songbirds and other wildlife — like deer and turkey — as well as pollinators. For the latter, they use more wildflower species and aim for at least three that bloom in the spring, three in summer and three in fall. 

Meanwhile, Jason Jones, the grassland and grazing coordinator, spends most of his time on the Working Lands for Wildlife program. It is aimed at improving habitat for bobolink and other wildlife, but also helps improve the income of farmers, specifically beef producers. 

Traditional hay and pasture fields are planted with cool-season grasses that have peak growth in the spring and fall, Grasser said. The working lands program gets native, warm-season grasses into the grazing mix that have peak growth — as in tall and thick — in June, July and August.

“These native grasses overcome the summer slump,” he said. “They’re more drought-tolerant, alleviate the need for hay and increase weight gain in calves, all of which benefits the operator.” 

This month and next, some local Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever chapters are hosting hunts for youth and veterans, and some educational programs for new hunters. They will be releasing pheasants for the hunts, Grasser said. 

Starting with youth seasons in October and continuing through Nov. 25, the Ohio Division of Wildlife is releasing more than 14,000 pheasants in 25 wildlife areas throughout the state. 

In all cases, the pheasants released for hunting are only males, since the state allows harvest of two roosters per day. And they are only released in areas with absolutely no wild pheasant populations. 

Farm-raised birds might attract predators like hawks and owls, since they are not experienced in evading them, and no one wants to take a chance that hens will be harvested accidentally. 

Plus, farm-raised birds have a very low survival rate: Fewer than 10% of those released are expected to survive past 30 days, Lautenbach said. 

Pheasant life cycle

Pheasants live one to two years in the wild on average, a statistic that hasn’t really changed in the last 50 years, he said. Those in Ohio and northern areas are more vulnerable to severe winters, of course. 

In Ohio, female pheasants begin to nest in mid-April, making a “nest bowl” from grasses left over from winter, adding a few feathers for good measure. They lay one egg a day, averaging eight to 10 total. The eggs take 23 days to hatch. 

The young can fly short distances about 10 days after hatching, longer distances at four to five weeks. They stay with their moms for about two months, moving from the dense cover of the nesting area to more open areas with flowering plants. There they can find insects — caterpillars, grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, etc. — that they need for protein. 

Going into the fall, they add seeds and wild fruits to the insect mix. The winter menu consists mainly of seeds and vegetation. 

Financial benefits

Lautenbach is on the board of the National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan. The plan addresses “what pheasant habitat is, how we can improve it, and how we can add more,” he said. 

It also examines the financial benefits of pheasant hunting, especially to rural communities, and how more opportunities can be provided. 

The average pheasant hunter in North America spends about $1,500 a year on hunting, with about half that going to meals, hotels and equipment on a hunting trip, Lautenbach said. 

He and Grasser stressed that landowners can receive incentives from more than one program, for more than one purpose. For instance, an owner involved in one of the USDA’s habitat programs can also receive income from a program designed to increase hunting opportunities, like the new Ohio Landowner-Hunter Access Program. 

Both kinds of programs seem to be making an impact on the welfare of wild pheasants. “The population decline has slowed; it’s not as quick as it once was,” Lautenbach said. “That’s the good news.”

More information

Below are some links for both hunters and those interested in conservation programs. 

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