Late December, January and February are the coldest part of the year in South Dakota. With a severe winter in South Dakota a wild pheasant population can be reduced by 50%, even with good habitat. If the habitat is poor and the winter severe, you could lose 90% of your pheasant population. Good winter habitat is the key to a good pheasant population. With a mild winter and good habitat, it is possible to have a survival rate close to 90%. December, January, and February are also the worst months for blizzards in South Dakota. However, most blizzards don’t last more than two days, and healthy pheasants are quite comfortable spending up to three days without eating. If the pheasants have adequate shelter from the storm they will hunker down and wait for the blizzard to end. However, after several days of not eating the pheasant will start to burn fat and then muscle tissue to survive. Pheasants can actually survive for over 2 weeks without food. The first blizzard of the year is the easiest for the pheasants to survive because of their fat reserves.
Once the pheasant has used all its fat reserves it will start to use its muscle mass. This is a critical time and if a pheasant loses too much weight it will die. Even when the snow clears enough to get to food, if another blizzard hits to soon the pheasant may be too weak to survive. The survivability is based on several things one of which is whether you are a rooster or a hen. Hens are smaller and lose body heat faster. Hens are also unable to defend food and prime cover from the larger roosters. More hens will die during winter then roosters. Survivability is also linked to when the pheasant was hatched. A chick hatched early in the year has a much better chance of surviving a bad winter. It has had more time to reach adult size and increase body fat.
On the positive side, it is believed that during a mild winter with good habitat a pheasant will actually gain fat in January and February.
When March arrives the pheasant has endured the worst of the winter. They are happy. There are blizzards in South Dakota in March. However, they are usually over quickly and the temperatures generally rebound quite rapidly. The pheasant is using less energy to stay warm in March and they can start to rebuild any lost muscle mass or fat supplies. This time of year pheasants eat primarily waste grain from the previous year’s crops, green plants and weed seeds.
This is the breeding season and a very active time for roosters. A rooster will actually start to lose weight in April while a hen will be gaining weight. The rooster will start gathering his harem in April. His territory size varies greatly depending on the number of other roosters in the area and the number of available hens. The rooster's harem size also varies greatly. It is not unusual to see harems of 12 to 15 hens per rooster.
Hens will start laying eggs at a rate of 1 per day. She will not start incubating her eggs until her nest is full, usually around 10 to 12 eggs. Once she starts incubating the eggs they will hatch in 23 days. As with almost all birds, the longer the hen has incubated her eggs the less likely she is to abandon them. The reason she waits to start incubation is that is she wants each chick to hatch the same day. On the day the chicks hatch, the hen immediately leads them away from the smells associated with the hatching and away from possible predators. The main nest predators are fox, skunk, and raccoon. It is very unlikely that each egg will hatch. Some will be infertile and others may have been frozen before the hen started the incubation period. If the weather gets hot before the hen starts to incubate some embryos can actually start to develop only to die on a cool evening. However, it doesn't matter to the hen if only 2 chicks hatch she is now a mother. As long as the hen has at least one chick with her she will not attempt to nest again for the entire summer. The main diet of the baby pheasant is insects and that is supplemented by weed seed and wheat as they mature.
Many people are convinced that pheasants will raise several broods each year. Part of this is due to the fact that it is common to see baby pheasants of all sizes throughout the summer. The reason behind all the sizes is that pheasants will nest again if they lose all their eggs or chicks. It should be noted that the survivability of both the hen and the chicks, resulting from later nesting attempts, is not nearly as good as the first nesting. The hen expends a lot of energy nesting and her physical condition deteriorates with each try. That gives her less time to prepare for winter. The later hatched chicks have less time to grow and build body fat before winter. The success of the first hatch is critical to a healthy wild pheasant population.
With all the obstacles involved in raising a family of baby pheasants, the success rates are not good. Some articles report, an average success rate of nests at 50% and if the nest is successful an average chick survival rate of only 50%. However, I am confident those rates are significantly higher with proper habitat management.
Summer is the time for the hens to be raising babies. Roosters have a much easier life this time of year. The roosters will actually start to rebuild their fat reserves and muscle mass for next winter in July. However, the hens will continue burning whatever fat reserves they managed to accumulate in April.
The hens are extremely busy watching over their brood in June and July. In only 2 weeks pheasant chicks begin growing flight feathers and can actually fly for a short distance at 2 weeks. Flight that early is quite unusual in the bird world. It is a defense system that is essential for the baby pheasant’s survival. Adult pheasants can fly up to 48 mph and if they are chased they can reach 60 mph. They can run up to 10 mph.
The dreaded summer hail storms are the next big threat to the pheasant population. A bad hail storm can completely wipe out a population of pheasants. However, most hail storms don’t cover huge areas. Pheasants move around each year and will repopulate a devastated area within a year or two. There is a lot of debate over whether pheasants need standing water in the late summer. If it is a hot summer and there is no morning dew and the insect population is low the answer is a resounding yes.
At about 10 weeks old pheasant chicks begin to leave their mother. Between laying eggs and caring for her young hens lose a lot of weight and in August she is in the worse condition of the year. However, by September most of the chicks have left their mothers and the hens finally get a chance to rest. She will finally start replacing her lost muscle mass to get ready for the coming winter.
Wild pheasants have survived the harsh South Dakota winter. The hens have survived the hardest part of their year and have hopefully raised some new wild pheasants. It is time for pheasants to increase body weight and improve their physical condition in preparation for the next South Dakota winter. There is plenty of food available and South Dakota falls are beautiful. Living is good and happy times have arrived. Wrong!!! Pheasant hunting season starts in mid October and one of the adult pheasant’s main predators is man. The other main predators of adult pheasants are fox and birds of prey. Birds of prey start their migrations south about this time of year so the wild pheasant cannot afford to relax.
Hunting is actually a good thing for the overall pheasant population. Fewer roosters going into winter is a good thing for the hens. Hens compete with the roosters for food and cover in the winter. It is not necessary to have a lot of roosters in the spring and too many roosters in the spring can be a detriment. Too many roosters will cause them to spend most of their time fighting each other.
There is usually plenty of food available in the fall and the hens and roosters will be gorging themselves. The hens, which got a late start due to their parental duties, will increase their weight dramatically and can increase their fat by 5 fold. With the shorter days both the roosters and hens spend most of the daylight hours feeding.
There is always a chance of an early blizzard in November in South Dakota. However, the pheasants have generally been able to increase their fat supplies by then. Also, a November blizzard will usually give way to nicer weather quite quickly. The first blizzard is always easier for the pheasants to survive. It may catch the pheasants off guard, but it is a good time for them to evaluate their local cover. If necessary, a wild pheasant will travel more than 5 miles to find good cover. A properly placed food plot of 2 to 3 acres next to good cover and left standing can support up to 70 pheasants through the winter.
The life a wild pheasant is not an easy one. However, by understanding the habits of the wild pheasant in relation to each of the seasons you can build a habitat to help them along. A hunter should always respect and treasure each wild pheasant that is harvested. They truly are remarkable birds.