By Mark Vavroch
Iowa pheasants have enjoyed a good three-year run of milder winters leading to some of the highest spring bird numbers since 2008, but that run of good luck can’t last forever. Weather and habitat are keys to bird survival, and over the last eight years Iowa has lost 500,000 acres of CRP statewide.
“We’re trying to keep and add as many CRP acres as we can,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland game bird biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Last winter’s below normal snowfall certainly helped the existing pheasant population according to Bogenschutz. For five years in a row, heavy winter snow followed by cool wet springs sent Iowa pheasant numbers into a free fall bottoming out in 2011. But after more favorable winter/nesting seasons, including most recently in back to back to back years, things are looking up for ringnecks and other wildlife.
The three year reprieve to more normal winter snowfall is encouraging, and there are steps landowners can take to help ensure the trend continues – plant shelterbelts and food plots.
Planning shelterbelts and food plots for next winter should begin this spring and there are a few things landowners should keep in mind when designing these areas.
According to Bogenschutz, “There have been few documented cases of pheasants actually starving to death in Iowa.” Virtually all of Iowa’s winter mortality is attributed to severe winter storms with the birds freezing to death. So why plant food plots for pheasants and other wildlife if they seldom starve in winter?
First, food plots provide winter habitat as well as food. In fact, if properly designed and large enough, the habitat created by a food plot can be more beneficial to wildlife than the food itself. Second, food plots allow pheasants to obtain a meal quickly, thereby limiting their exposure to predators and maximizing their energy reserves. “If hens have good fat supplies coming out of the winter, they are more likely to nest successfully,” said Bogenschutz. Food plots also provide habitat and food for many other species like deer, turkey, partridge, squirrels, and songbirds.
Bogenschutz offers the following suggestions for planning food plots for pheasants and other wildlife:
- Corn and sorghum grains provide the most reliable food source throughout the winter as they resist falling over in heavy snows. Pheasants prefer corn to sorghum, although sorghum provides better winter habitat. Sorghum is also less attractive to deer, if deer are a problem.
- Place food plots away from tall deciduous trees (they provide raptors with a place to sit and watch the food plots) and next to wetlands, CRP fields, and multi-row shrub-conifer shelterbelts that provide good winter habitat.
- Size of food plot depends upon where they are placed. If the plot is next to good winter cover, a smaller food plot can be planted (2 acres or larger). If winter cover is marginal (i.e., ditch), then plots must be larger (5-10 acres) to provide cover as well as food.
- Depending on the amount of use some food plots receive, corn food plots can be left for 2 years. The weedy growth that follows in the second year provides excellent nesting, brood rearing, and winter habitat for pheasants and other upland wildlife. Food plots that have heavy deer use generally need to be replanted every year.
The Poweshiek County Pheasants Forever Chapter will provide food plot seed to landowners at no cost to help establish more food plots in Poweshiek County. Some cost-share assistance for food plot establishment is also available from the chapter, as well as, cost-share assistance for the establishment of native grasses and planting trees and shrubs.
The Pheasants Forever food plot seed is available at the County Conservation Office located at Diamond Lake Park (641-623-3191) or available from Larry Van Ersvelde (641-990-0521) in Grinnell.
Hopefully, with a little help from local land owners and a great nesting season, the pheasant numbers will continue to grow.