Kansas Pheasant Outlook and Wheat

One Debate With A Specific Year Example

The wheat harvest in Kansas this year was from 2 to 4 weeks ahead of past averages. If wheat is required for pheasant nesting success then many nests were destroyed.

Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks makes much about winter wheat fields being an enhancement for ground nesting bird reproduction success. We too thought several years ago this to be true. We began walking wheat fields to see for ourselves their ground nesting bird attractiveness. What we found is an absences of bird nests of any kind. Once again this spring we walked the majority of a wheat field finding no nests within the wheat at all. While we would like to have the ability to observe what appears to be a direct correlative indicator of wheat field nest counts compared to fall bag counts we have only proven to ourselves that wheat fields are not a fall hunt quality indicator. It is not likely we will continue to walk spring wheat fields. That is unless given further evidence of the value of wheat fields for ground nesting birds. 

One final point as feedback from those pheasant hunters who have cut wheat capable hunting dogs do report similar observations. That is a lack of nesting evidence within the wheat.

It seems that more so lately than before the idea that Kansas wheat harvest is directly related to Kansas pheasant forecasting has become conventional wisdom. It also appears to be a case of the bus to Abilene

We say that as it is talked about in verbal and written communication as a widely accepted fact. This has become “true” regardless of any empirical data such as road surveys or crowing counts.

What may be true is in the small region of Kansas where the only cover is a wheat field all ground nesting birds may require that cover for success. Or, a case of habitat creation with secondary effects of new species intervention resulting from the activities of man.

What is true is the regions where Mid-America Hunting Association leases private hunting land is not where quail or pheasant have only wheat available for nesting. Our forecasting approach continues to be what we can observe. That is wheat is not a preferred nesting cover. There is more other than wheat nesting cover available for pheasants in the regions where MAHA has hunting land.

It appears that Kansas wheat is well on the way to one of the earliest harvests on record. If that occurs and if quail and pheasant are dependent on winter wheat for nesting success then it is likely that an early wheat harvest presumably early June in south Kansas through later in June towards the north will destroy many nests.

To the contrary the picture of the shotgun shell and wheat head does show a failing to the idea winter wheat is preferred nesting for ground dwelling birds. that failing is even the best wheat on the best growing seasons does not provide good aerial concealment.

The top wheat field picture shows a lush carpet thick with cover. That same field when viewed overhead appears much different.

Kansas wheat this year is great. Better than anyone has memory. It is high. Most of the fields are above the knee by May 1. Much of the wheat is near the hip of a 6 foot tall man.

The grain heads are well advanced and on the larger side of average. This size of grain is far earlier than average.

Kansas Pheasant Outlook and Wheat
Part of the Kansas wheat field we walked.
Kansas Pheasant Outlook and Wheat

A non-attribution email discussion that addresses the Kansas wheat and pheasant nesting issue written above. This discussion happens to be one of the better ones. It is posted here without names as encouragement to further discussions.

Our response:

Hi …,

Thank you for collecting a third party viewpoint. Although he is not a disinterested party he has a reputation to uphold and that can only be done through objectivity. So, I like you are willing to accept his observations.

I am always interested in the context of those that talk about wheat and nesting vice bird presence and brooding. I hold that the debate is far from settled based on direct research. … [his] observations fall into the category where I agree that during harvest adult and juvenile pheasant and quail will be flushed. I agree that brooding will occur in wheat fields. The more refined observations seem to be that such flushing is along the edges and far less so more interior to the field. That observation comes form those in the combine seat that run the entire field and many fields in close order.

I believe this indicates that the mixed edge habitat providing more bug than grain food source is the reason for the brood’s presence in the wheat field edge and not that wheat is the motivation for their presence. Their presence in the wheat field edge before harvest appears to be for easy ground movement cover near the heavier edge cover. I have found pheasant to desire the easier walking tractor lanes on my farm as much as the turkey and deer do.

Their flushing is always a good sign as most escape the death trap of the combine.

I do not have anyone that can say with authority that nesting is occurring in wheat. A nest will always show its presence by egg shells of those that hatched and every nest encountered be it turkey, pheasant or quail always has one or more eggs where the chicks did not hatch in time and most were eaten by vermin leaving much evidence. That signature remains in place for months and would be plainly visible in a cut wheat field. That is the piece that is missing from all these discussions. My field walking has always been with camera in hand seeking a picture of pheasant nest existence in a cut wheat field to include an examination of the egg residue to determine if the nest hatched or was destroyed by farm equipment. I do not have any such pictures and from all these discussion over all these years no one else has any such proof. I would like that wheat to be such a direct correlation to nesting success. That would make this forecasting effort much easier in Kansas where the most planted crop is wheat. Less so in Missouri and Iowa. I have concluded that this idea is more wishful thinking than factual. And, as always, I encourage anyone to prove this position wrong. I am after objective forecast indicator that can be repeated in their results.

To date every ground nesting bird nest I have found, the most frequent being the Meadow Lark, has been in other than wheat. The most common farm ground gamebird nest that I have found has been turkey in alfalfa fields. These have been found after the first alfalfa cutting and have had 100% of their nests/eggs destroyed by farm equipment. If I could find such evidence in wheat fields then I would be more accepting of the forecast indictor of wheat harvest on nest survival.

Thank you for the best discussion yet this spring on the forecast. It is this type of discussion that is wanted.

From the third party:

… Early wheat harvest in Kansas has the potential to destroy many pheasant and quail nests and young broods. Most of the nesting in Kansas occurs in the wheat, therefore we risk a lot by entering the fields early this summer. On the other hand, spring breeding occurred earlier than usual this spring and many pairs were also ahead of schedule. I have been out on many field an observed 2 week old birds flushing out of the fields ahead of the combines. In North Central Kansas where I work we received good rains early this spring making green up come faster. There has been plenty of new growth on burned sites and lots of bugs around. A few timely rains to wet the wheat a little to delay harvest for a few days would be accepted by most farmers so that they could feel better about planting milo and beans. I think in my area we should have a good turn around in bird numbers this year and continuing to rise as we are beginning to manage our CRP better in the area.

The originating email:

What impact on nesting is the early wheat harvest having? Thanks