Grassland Management for Upland Birds

Pheasants Forever emphasizes native grasses being a limiting factor for upland game bird nesting and brooding. For this reason, Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever focuses and invests locally in southeast Washington habitat enhancement projects with a native grassland focus. However, identifying and understanding limiting habitat factors for focused improvement programs is deeper than quantifying acreages of cover and crop types.

A healthy native grassland includes grasses that provide adequate nesting cover and open ground space and forbs for brood rearing and foraging.

finn in bunchgrass

To better understand the status of upland bird habitat and limiting factors, I selected about a dozen pertinent scientific journal articles from around the world and found several common themes revolving around one main conclusion. A loss of native grasslands has led to a noticeable decline in game bird populations. For example, between 1980 and 1995, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) noted the number of pheasant harvested declined from 500,000 birds to 70,000 birds annually.

There were a few other common points, as well as grassland management practices that are summarized below.

Common Worldwide Themes:

  • As agriculture practices have evolved and become more efficient and effective, more grasslands have been converted to cropland, thus reducing available quality nesting and brood rearing habitat.
  • As grassland species composition changes from frequent mowing, grazing, or haying, available food sources for upland birds wane, particularly for juveniles.
  • Maintaining robust stands of native grasses is key to upland bird reproduction success and winter survival.

While it’s clear that fallow, native grasses are crucial for reproduction and brood rearing, dense riparian and wetland areas provide critical winter cover as well. Shrubs and cattails provide wind breaks and refuge from extreme cold.

grassland

Habitat area is not critical, but research suggests that game birds prefer smaller grasslands (less than 8 acres). This supports Conservation Reserve Program agriculture buffer management and enhancement practices.

Finally, providing a variety of grasses and forbs is important for brood rearing. Adult pheasant feed primarily on grains, but laying hens and chicks require insects for growth and development. Broadleaf plants, such as native weeds and forbs, provide this important food source.

Several different habitat management actions can be implemented to maintain healthy stands of native grasses, whether in a pasture or crop field buffer. Below are the most effective actions.

Management Actions

  • Prescribed Burning: Prescribed burning mimics natural grassland processes which clean out heavy thatch and return nutrients to the soil. Burning invigorates grasses and opens the stand at ground level providing  forage cover for chicks. This technique may be one of the most effective management tools.
  • Disking: Disking breaks up grasses and opens the stand at the ground level providing foraging cover for chicks, encourages decomposition and organic nutrient inputs, and stimulates seed bank germination. Disking may be recommended in lieu of burning, but is less effective.
  • Herbicide Applications: Herbicides have proven effective and important in controlling noxious weeds and are commonly applied locally. Literature review did not pinpoint dramatic direct effects of herbicide applications on game birds, but indirect effects including reduced insect forage were noted. While herbicides are not recommended for use in early successional vegetation, appropriate herbicide use in combination with the above actions is recommended.

Scientific literature confirms that habitat loss has led to a major decline in game bird populations worldwide, and nesting and brood rearing habitat are limiting factors. The Pheasants Forever mission includes habitat creation and enhancement as a focal point, not only for pheasant, but for all native vegetation and wildlife. Whether you can provide 2 or 200 habitat acres, a little management can provide big benefits, and BMPF is available to assist.

pf pollinator

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