Harvest timing can help or hurt pheasant production

What Kansas pheasant hunters find afield this fall will largely be determined within the next few weeks. Good hatching, and brood rearing, conditions are needed for good populations.

“The majority of hens should be sitting on nests right now,” said Jeff Prendergast, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism pheasant biologist. “The peak of our hatch is usually the first week of June or right around then.”

So far things look fairly promising. Cover conditions are good thanks to spring rains, and last year’s nice population provided enough hens for possibly good production.

Prendergast doesn’t know how many pheasants Kansas hunters shot during the 2015 season, but figures it’s considerably higher than the 2014 harvest of about 270,00 birds. As recently as the 2010 season, Kansas hunters were shooting more than twice that many pheasants. Several years of drought dropped the population considerably. Prendergast said he once hoped last year’s harvest would top 500,000 but preliminary information says it may not be that high.

If all goes well this spring and summer, though, the harvest could take another major jump this fall and winter.

But problems could occur if this year’s wheat harvest comes ahead of schedule.

“We have about 10 million acres of wheat planted in Kansas every year,” he said, “so there’s just a lot more of it on the landscape. We don’t have a solid figure as per how many, but a large number of the birds do nest in wheat.”

Ideally for pheasants, the wheat harvest starts in late June, so the young pheasants have matured enough to get out of the way of farm machinery, like combines. Even coming two weeks early can destroy a lot of nests and greatly impact an area’s fall pheasant population.

“Things are real critical those first two weeks, (after hatching) that’s when we lose a lot of chicks,” Prendergrast said. “They have to find cover that’s thin enough to move around, then find cover that’s thick enough to provide cover and enough insects to provide food.”

It’s also important to have a good crop of weeds and wild flowers, which attract the insects on which young pheasants survive the first several weeks of their life. He said young pheasants can fly short distances beginning at about two weeks old, and by six to eight weeks can fly well enough to cover distances and more easily escape predators.

Prendergast said he’s talked to several wheat farmers who are predicting an early harvest because of warm temperatures.

“That could put the harvest right in the middle of the peak of hatching,” he said. “That’s not good.” Others reports predict the harvest will be about on schedule, or even a few days later.

No matter where, most farmers say their wheat is tall and thick, which could be a plus for the birds.

“When the (combine) headers are set higher to harvest the wheat, they may be able to cut the wheat without killing all of the chicks,” he said. “The saving grace this year could be the tall wheat. If they’re cutting high, we may save some of the chicks that way.”