Pheasants and Habitat

The Rocky Mountain Front from a Montana pheasant field.

“Kiri! Get back in the truck!”

My Lab, Kiri, and I had just gotten to a farm to chase pheasants. I was gearing up, putting on a windbreaker, vest, and getting my gun. I was watching this black cloud move across the river valley. Then the wind, already brisk, started roaring, blasting us with wind-driven rain and snow.

Within seconds of getting into the shelter of the truck the storm squall drenched the landscape with what the weather people call a wintry mix. It didn’t last long, however. Within 15 minutes the storm blew past, the sun came out, and Kiri and I got on with a pheasant walk.

If you’re visiting the Rocky Mountain Front you need to be prepared for a little wind—maybe a lot of wind, along with rapid changes in weather.

An October ritual is a trip to the Rocky Mountain Front to hunt pheasants, so we were well prepared for weather changes. I was also prepared to shoot at lots of pheasants, but sorry to say, that part of the trip didn’t work too well.

A lesson I’ve learned over the years is that cows and upland bird habitat just don’t mix well. Pheasants and other upland birds have pretty much the same basic needs as we do: food, water, and shelter. Take away any one of these elements and the chances are pheasants will go someplace else where their needs will be better met.

The first farm I hunted on our trip has been a long-time favorite. Over the years I’ve shot a lot of pheasants there. When I first drove in to my usual parking spot to start a pheasant walk, two long-tailed pheasant roosters trotted away from the grain bins, where they had been feeding. A hundred yards from the house they were pretty safe.

When I got out into the fields, I felt disappointment. The landowners don’t do the actual farming, but rent the fields to a neighboring farmer. The renter had harvested the barley crop and then turned some cattle out to graze on what was left after the crop had been harvested. By mid-October, the cows could put up their “Mission Accomplished” banner. The grassy and weedy edges at the ends of the fields were grazed down. Even worse, a corner of the farm that has a cattail slough and an adjacent area with tall grass and weeds, and patches of willows and other trees, was totally beaten down by the cattle. 

After a couple long walks through the few weed patches that could still shelter a pheasant we’d put up just one lone pheasant and that old rooster got up well out of shooting range. A third, and last, day was much like the first. Livestock had trampled the wildlife habitat and the pheasants were mostly gone. 

The prairie at sunset.

On the middle day I hunted a farm where the habitat was better, though that doesn’t guarantee anything. In our first walk, Kiri put up five pheasants, all in decent shooting range. Unfortunately, they were all protected hen pheasants. Hindsight being 20/20, however, that fifth bird might have been a rooster, I mused, as the bird flew out of sight. All I knew for sure is that I couldn’t pick out any colors when the bird flushed.

After a lunch break we tramped over another part of the farm, a hillside subdivided by a long coulee, with springs that create a marshy, brushy habitat. As we approached the first brush patch, Kiri caught a scent and went charging into the willows, and a couple seconds later half a dozen pheasants, both hens and roosters, burst out of the end of the patch, well out of shooting range, then flying over the fence line that marks the end of the property. Adding insult to injury, several more pheasants flushed from just over the fence and went over the hill. Later, I had shots at a couple roosters, but missed.

There are never guarantees, but if there is wildlife habitat on the land, there’s a good chance there will be wildife. 

Habitat is everything.

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