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Chapter News - January 05, 2006

Pheasants get home in winter

Pheasants get home in winter

Date: Thursday, January 05, 2006

WILLIAMSTON -- This wasn't what pheasant hunters are used to seeing in Michigan these days. Bill Brake, John Anderson and Brake's German shorthair, Remington, had flushed two hen pheasants within five minutes of walking into a field sparsely planted with native prairie grasses. Then they took a couple of more steps, and south-central Michigan suddenly looked like Iowa or South Dakota. A wave of 20-25 pheasants, three or four of them roosters, burst out of a stand of cattails 100 yards away and flew a couple of hundred yards before dropping into another stand of cattails on neighboring property. "Wow, that was amazing," said Brake, a Perry painting contractor and president of the Ingham County chapter of Pheasants Forever. "Maybe next time some of them will go up close enough to get a shot off." Brake and Anderson, the state Pheasants Forever habitat specialist, had come during the week between Christmas and New Year's to hunt on land where the owner wanted to improve pheasant habitat. "He's mostly a deer hunter, and he's managed it for deer," Brake said of Anderson. "But he did some reading and realized that if you manage land for pheasants, you're actually creating great habitat for all kinds of wildlife, including deer." The 400-acre farm had good food plots and summer nesting cover. But it appeared to lack winter cover -- dense grasses where pheasants could survive in open spaces under the snow. The landowner had tried to establish better winter cover, planting prairie grasses in a big field, but Anderson said the grasses weren't tough enough to protect the birds during the worst part of a Michigan winter. "If you think it's holding a lot of pheasants now, wait until you see what it will be like in a couple of years when he gets the habitat right," Anderson said. The late pheasant season in the southern Lower Peninsula ended Sunday. The prime season is from mid-October to mid-November. After Brake and Anderson flushed the big batch of birds, they covered the rest of the farm, flushing three more roosters and seven hens. All came out of the densest marsh grass or clumps of cattails. "Did you see where the birds came out of?" Anderson said. "They were all in the cattails or canary grass. That shows you that in order to keep pheasants all year, you need good winter cover. What you need to do is manage your land for the worst two weeks of the winter, the two weeks in February went it gets down around zero and stays there for days. "What he really needs in these big open areas is switchgrass. It grows shoulder high, and when the snow pushes it over, it doesn't get matted down flat the way marsh grass or bluestem does. It bends and creates tunnels under the snow where the birds can stay warm and wait out the worst weather." The Ingham chapter of Pheasants Forever has been aggressive in seeking landowners to create habitat for pheasants and other wildlife. "One of the problems is that the land keeps getting cut up into smaller and smaller acreages, and that's not good for wildlife," Anderson said. "And while you might not be able to do a lot with one 20-acre parcel, if you sign up five or 10 people with 20-acre plots that are connected, you have a nice chunk of habitat." Anderson looks for ways to get the work done for the landowner free or at reduced cost. Pheasants Forever has money it can use for planting native grasses on private lands, and several government programs also will pay the landowner. Among them are the conservation reserve program, conservation reserve enhancement program and wetland reserve program. The Ingham Pheasants Forever chapter provides native grass seeds to more than 150 landowners in the county each year. "I did the first project on my own land in 1988, when it became clear that loss of habitat was the big problem," Brake said. "We started out by handing out plastic bags of native grass seeds to people at the Ingham County Fair. They asked what they should do with it, and we'd tell them, 'If you have a quarter-acre you're not using, plant it.' "Then they'd show up the next year looking for more. They'd tell us that after they planted the native grasses, they started seeing all kinds of songbirds, rabbits and things that they never saw before." January 5, 2006