What is Brood Habitat?
Perspective is everything. Walk a mile in someone's shoes, and you gain an appreciation for their view. So for insight about brood habitat, exercise your noodle a little and imagine that you are a pheasant chick. No, big boy, not the good-looking one you buy raffle tickets from at the PF banquet. I am talking about 3 inches tall here—covered in soft, fluffy down and sporting short, stubby wings.
When that chick emerges from the egg, staring it in the face is an overwhelming demand for protein-rich food, and some serious trekking requirements given those stumpy little legs. Mostly, broods don't take great cross-country gallops in search of feeding areas; based on size alone that's a tough proposition. Broods only move far enough to satisfy their needs--the shorter the distance, the better. And, home ranges can be pretty small if cover quality is high. Movements of just 1-4 acres per day in the first weeks of life characterize the limited travels of broods in good cover.
Bugs are the fuel these little bodies need to grow. Chicks chow down on bugs almost exclusively their first 4-6 weeks, feeding almost constantly throughout each day. Insects continue to be an important, but smaller, component of the diet through 14 weeks. What types of bugs are eaten? Soft bodied ones where possible. Leafhoppers and larval stages of moths and grasshoppers make up a large part of the diet. Research has also shown that pheasant chicks think bigger is better, selecting the largest bugs first from a variety of sizes presented to them. The management challenge with brood habitat is to provide the very best cover possible for those insects, so that more of them are produced for brood food.
Chicks consume from 1,000 to 2,700 milligrams of bugs per day, so they need a cover that produces a high insect biomass (oats/sweet clover can produce 500 mg of insects per square meter). Pheasant broods forced to range over larger areas have reduced rates of survival (corn or beans are an example, where insect biomass is low, or about 40-50 mg/square meter). Single species stands of native (eg. switchgrass) or cool-season grasses (eg. bromegrass) are also poor producers of insects. Adding forbs (broad leafed annuals or perennials) to these grasses increases diversity and insects.
The composition of the habitat is also crucial to the ability of broods to penetrate and use the cover. A brood's needs and perspective are not unlike a grouse hunter's moving through forested habitat in pursuit of birds. The tree canopy towers above while around is secondary, lower growing vegetation that harbors grouse. A hunter would choose habitat that was both attractive to grouse and easy to shoot in (like open alder stands), yet with open access to work through the cover (prickly ash choked with deadfalls wouldn't be the choice of most grouse hunters).
Pheasant broods on the hunt for food have the same considerations. Broods need good lateral and overhead concealment from predation, since they are being hunted themselves by most everything with teeth and talons (from a hatch of a dozen chicks, 6 will survive until the pheasant opener). Yet broods also require openness at ground level to feed freely throughout the stand (and to escape should trouble show up). Fields choked with the litter of dead vegetation from years of neglect will not see much use by broods. Obviously, brood cover must be comprised of vegetation attractive to their insect quarry—like the grouse example above. Meeting these twin needs through effective cover management translates to reduced brood movements. That means less exposure to predators/mortality, and more young roosters come fall.
Good nesting cover can be great brood habitat, as well, but generally not without some thought. Early-successional areas, characterized by open stands with a high diversity of grasses and succulent broadleaved plants (just the ticket for abundant insects), fit the requirements for both nesting and brood rearing; while straight grass plantings often do not. A brome/alfalfa mix is a classic pheasant nesting cover combination that provides excellent insect production, while switchgrass (an OK, but not fabulous nesting grass) is a poor brood cover choice. Well-designed habitat for both nesting and broods will pair diverse forbs (broadleaves) with several species of either warm or cool-season grasses (or a both) that will provide more cover variety.
The value of cover for broods and nesting declines significantly as the stand ages. If you have your own plantings to do, diversify them and create a plan for regular disturbance (disking, grazing, haying, burning, etc.) that rejuvenates the cover. Rotationally managing a third of the field annually provides much better wildlife habitat overall. On older stands (like unmanaged CRP), renovate by light mechanical disking or burning, then reseed the area with legumes or native grasses and forbs. Chemical burn-downs of stunted grasses can also have short-term benefits. The annual weeds (i.e. forbs) released by burning, mechanical or chemical disturbance are a plus for pheasants; creating much better cover structure for nesting and more food for broods. Even weedy, second-year food plots provide good brood cover.
If your property can accommodate several discrete fields of tame grass/legume plantings and native grasses/forb mixes, nesting and brood cover will be enhanced. Mixes of cool-season tame grasses and forbs typically contain brome, orchardgrass, or timothy, and legumes like alfalfa or clovers. Vigorous for the first few years, these areas require periodic reseeding to stay attractive for insects and broods. Plantings of mixed prairie grasses and native forbs provide relative ease of movement for broods, form complex habitats for insects and offer excellent residual vegetation for nesting. The best native plantings normally contain mixes of 5-7 grasses suited to the site, with a complement of 7-15 forbs. Broods are often found at the junction of these native and cool season habitats. These complexes of plants also provide habitat for nesting, night roosting, daytime loafing and escape cover.