The Pheasant Crash

A comment on my post about the weekend hunting asked my opinion on why there are no pheasants in the Central Valley. The question is very appropriate and to say that the pheasant population has declined dramatically is an understatement.

Pheasants are survivors. They live in diverse habitats and under good conditions they thrive in California farm lands. However, they require habitat. At one time, corn and rice farms provided habitat for pheasants. As farming became more efficient, ground was occasionally set aside for wildlife and pheasants could nest successfully.

Farming is now so efficient that almost no ground is left unfarmed. Roundup ready corn can take direct application of herbicides that kill all other plants. No habitat exists between the corn stocks.

I don’t have as much experience with rice, but with rice and corn prices skyrocketing last spring, farmers stepped up their efforts to plant every square inch of land.  As hunter landowners, we take steps to promote habitat. Our fields are nearly 100% natural and we manage for maximum wildlife habitat. Therefore we should have large numbers of pheasants -right?

The answer is no we don’t. We are somewhat confused by the lack of pheasant production on our 300 acres, but at least we have enough pheasants to make hunting reasonably worthwhile.

Why don’t we have more pheasants? The weather in California can make things difficult for pheasant chicks to survive and survival of pheasant chicks is probably the most critical link in the life cycle of pheasants. Chicks need to be able to maneuver through the field in search of bugs. Bugs are critical nourishment for the birds during the first few months of their development.

Bugs only live in ground that has moisture. Once the ground drys up, the bugs go away and the chicks starve. However, cover is also important. If the chicks don’t have cover over their heads, they fall prey to avian predators – like the marsh hawk.

Therefore the critical link in springtime is to have habitat with moisture and leafy upland plants to hide the birds from predators. This annual grasses don’t do the job. If the annual grasses take over, that will also break the cycle and reduce the number of successful broods.

Therefore, management of pheasant habitat is critical to optimum success. Farming does contribute, primarily by disking or otherwise killing annual grasses and making a place for br0ad-leaf plants to grow. Farming also can irrigate areas to create insect life that is critical. Where farming may have once been a net positive for pheasants, it now almost a total negative.

The reduction in the number of pheasant hunters is also a problem. The loss of hunters reduces pressure on farmers and landowners to manage the ground with pheasant in mind. We’re losing on all fronts.

What can we do? I believe that hunters should own more ground and manage with hunting and wildlife in mind as a viable by product of good land management.

Education of landowners and people who like to see pheasants is very important.

The California Department of Fish and Game is aware of this issue and can be responsive if querried. Ed Smith, retired from Fish and Game is an expert on this subject. Since his retirement a few years ago, he has spent many days afield with landowners and pheasant hunters educating them about this isse. He is the source of much of my knowledge on this subject.

Ed’s approach is to clear a path to remove annual grasses. Then create a way to irrigate the path such as making a ditch line. Then water is run down the ditch on a weekly basis to provide moisture for chicks. Once the annual grasses are prevented from taking over, the warm spring weather will allow broad leaf plants to grow along the ditch providing cover for the pheasant chicks.

It’s not as simple as it sounds, but it does work. That’s why we still have some pheasants on our property. I’ll post Ed’s phone number once I locate it. When his process is managed carefully, it can produce a boat load of pheasants.

5 thoughts on “The Pheasant Crash

  1. Great post, Rich. I’ve also found that, in the Delta, the vast, vast majority of farmers are pulling up and baling their corn stalks to sell as silage. This leaves few seed and absolutely zero cover, and turns the Delta into huge swaths of flat mud.

  2. Excellent post, Rich. Thanks for the info. And glad to know there are a few wild pheasants roaming around your property and that there’s a landowner who cares about them.

    I’ve also heard from some biologists that California never really had much of a pheasant population UNTIL the introduction of irrigated agriculture — the state’s climate just wasn’t conducive to supporting large numbers of wild pheasants. Clean farming has long since canceled out that benefit to pheasants.

    It’s also too bad that California real estate and water costs are so high as to negate almost any practical application of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to set aside marginal and other farmland and has resulted in the recent boom in pheasant populations in the Dakotas and elsewhere in the Midwest. Seems like a missed opportunity not to customize that federal program for the needs of California farmers and wildlife.

    I’ve often wondered if we could somehow get the state, counties or local farmers to stop mowing and burning all the public roadside ditches or shoulders in the Delta, Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere in farm country. These can provide great wildlife and pheasant habitat in CA without farmers sacrificing income or impacting private property owners.

    The median strips along I-5 around the wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley are loaded with pheasants, for example. Seems like a simple step that could help our wildlife and local remaining wild pheasants.

  3. Great blog!!

    And a wonderful post which is incredibly helpful as I wander around, new to the valley, new to hunting pheasant or even spying a pheasant. I’ve been wondering the whys and hows of their population cycles.

  4. So it’s not happening just up here in Oregon/Idaho, eh? That’s too bad – the last 5 years have seen a big crash in pheasant numbers up here, too. When I was growing up in Vale, that are was one of the best places you could hunt pheasant outside of South Dakota – now it’s like you said…the birds are scarce and getting more scarce.

  5. Somthing that could be a small part in pheasant population crash, are rotery swathers. Many times I stop just in time to keep from swathing up a brood of chicks at regular swather speeds. Rotery swathers go way too fast to ever know there were chicks infront of you. Just a thought.

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