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Spring Important Time for Pheasant Population

PIERRE, S.D.—In the late summer and fall, South Dakotans typically turn their attention to the size of that year’s pheasant population and the prospects for hunting that year. It is the spring season, however, that goes a long way toward determining the size of the pheasant population.

“Spring is an important time for pheasants,” said George Vandel, assistant director of the Wildlife Division of the S.D. Game, Fish and Parks Department. “It’s also a dangerous time. During the breeding season, we lose more hen pheasants than at any other time of the year.”

South Dakota has enjoyed extraordinarily large pheasant populations the past four to five years due to the combination of plentiful habitat through programs like CRP and ideal weather conditions during mid-June.

“Getting the right kind of weather in the spring is key,” Vandel said. “The right amount of moisture is needed after pheasant chicks are hatched because that promotes insect growth. The chicks rely on an exclusive diet of insects for the first few weeks.”

Adequate moisture is also important for good nesting conditions that allow vegetation to grow. There has to be a balance between enough water to spark vegetation growth but not so much that it floods nests.

Nature’s balancing act is particularly important about the second week of June. That’s the prime time for the pheasant hatch in South Dakota, though it’s not uncommon to see a few broods as early as the second or third week of May. It’s best for pheasants during the hatch if the weather is warm and dry.

“The single most important habitat component for pheasant reproduction is undisturbed nesting cover,” said Tom Kirschenmann, senior upland wildlife biologist for GFP. “Pheasants will use many areas for nesting including roadside ditches, alfalfa fields, idle areas, winter wheat fields and most importantly, CRP fields.”

Land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, as well as other habitat programs, plays a significant role in maintaining the pheasant population and allowing it to rebound if the numbers suffer. “CRP is the No. 1 reason why South Dakota has enjoyed such a healthy pheasant population the last couple of years,” Vandel said.

The need for good habitat is crucial because even under the best of circumstances, life is tough in the field. Studies show that only one of three pheasant nests will successfully hatch, even in the best of conditions. A successful hatch has 10 to 12 chicks and only about half of them will make it to the fall hunting season.

It’s ironic that the trouble pheasants have nesting has helped perpetuate a myth about the birds being prolific breeders. “When people see pheasant chicks late in the season, they believe that it’s the hen’s second or third hatch,” Vandel said. “That’s rarely, if ever, the case. Those chicks are late because the hen has already had one or two nests destroyed.”

With the right conditions, it’s likely that South Dakota will enjoy another banner year for its pheasant population. Ensuring stability will take more than good weather, however, it will also take the continued use of CRP.

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