April 17, 2021

Habitat is critical for pheasants during long, hard winters

Iowa’s run of mild winters is gone, buried under a head-high snowdrift and frozen from weeks of negative temperatures. This return to the extreme has some residents wanting to help the now highly visible pheasants and quail and calling the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about placing corn and other grains out for the birds to eat.

While that sounds like a good idea, Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR said what these birds need most is shelter, not food.

“Their survival is not dependent on food supplies,” Bogenschutz said. “Virtually all of Iowa’s winter pheasant and quail mortality can be attributed to the lack of adequate winter habitat. Without it, the birds are vulnerable to hypothermia and exposure from severe wind chill and blowing snow.”

Iowa’s recent run of bitterly cold weather, wind and blowing snow highlights the need for winter habitat not only to survive the artic conditions and avoid predators looking for a meal, but come spring, that habitat becomes important for pheasant and quail chicks to survive.

“Quality habitat and winter cover are really the key to not only surviving a winter like this, but to allow the pheasants and quail that do make it to spring to rebuild the populations,” Bogenschutz said. “These birds are amazingly resilient if they have the proper habitat.”

For those interested in helping wildlife, Bogenschutz recommended they develop quality habitat on a portion of their land to allow the birds to survive future winters.

“Once winter sets in, it’s too late,” he said.

The Iowa DNR recommends a minimum of two acres of multi-row conifer/shrub shelterbelts, switchgrass and cattails next to food plots for habitat. Food plots should be between 2-5 acres and at least 100 yards from tall trees. Corn and sorghum provide the best food source in heavy snow.

Landowners interested in developing habitat should contact their local Iowa DNR private lands staff at iowadnr.gov/About-DNR/DNR-Staff-Offices then scroll down to the Private Lands Staff pdf link, Pheasants Forever staff or the NRCS. Cost-share assistance for shelterbelts, switchgrass, and food plot establishment is available from most county Pheasants Forever chapters.