Rooster Field of Dreams

Have you ever been on a hunt and wondered why our dogs are able to find birds in one field but you come up empty-handed on the next? The answer is the habitat. 

But what really is a habitat, anyway? Now that is a very complex question—no pun intended. 

Habitat Complexes

Thinking of a human habitat might help you understand how complex habitats are. When you think of your habitat, do you think of your home? Most people do. But most of us need more than just our home to survive. If you live off the grid, you may have most of what you need at home, but most of us don’t have everything we need for survival. 

Our home is our shelter. It’s the place that we roost for the night to avoid predators, nasty weather, or other dangers. Maybe you have a garden at home and produce some of your own food, but most of us still need to go to the grocery store. Our habitat complex must include stores where we gather our food and other vital resources. Were your children born and raised entirely at your home? Mine weren’t. My daughters were born in a hospital and then attended daycare while I was at work. All of this and more is part of the ‘habitat complex’ on which we depend. 

Pheasant Habitat

Pheasants use a habitat complex too. They need cover and food year-round, but don’t necessarily get them in the same place. When you scout for pheasant hunting spots in the fall, look for fields that have both food and cover nearby. The birds will move back and forth between these areas, so if you choose somewhere like a corn field that doesn’t provide much cover, your dogs won’t be as likely to get on birds. Similarly, your dogs may find more birds in a grassland that is adjacent to a corn field than they would in a field without food nearby. Another important part to a pheasant’s complex is a place to nest and brood rearing habitat. Much like a hospital is only necessary to a human when their baby is born, these areas are only important to pheasants in the spring. 

The CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program), a federal and state partnership program, offers financial incentives to landowners who are willing to take their land out of production and plant seed mixes for restoration. This is a great program in developing habitat complexes. In South Dakota, the James River CREP began with the goal of improving water quality in 2009. The CREP also wanted to increase diversity and the abundance of wildlife in the state. Unlike many of the nationwide CREPs, South Dakota’s James River program permits public hunting. Because flat rivers are prone to flooding, the soils near the river often have rich deposits of alluvial (river sediment) soils in this area. This means that the 81,000 acres of restored grasslands near the watershed is extremely fertile and agricultural production is extensive. Thus, this land full of shelter and close to crops that is open to public hunting is a precious jewel in an already great region for pheasant hunting—thanks in great part to the complex habitat. 

Checking on the Resource 

One afternoon, Brian and I went on a hunt with on of our students, Eli (pictured with Katie above), and Come Along Sister, who was still developing and working on field breaking. We visited a few of the newer South Dakota CREP lands. I was settling in and trying to get comfortable with my new 12 gauge Benelli Supersport, but missed all of my shots early in the day. Finally, at our last stop, we were working up a draw that was thick with cattails and Sister nailed a point. Eli and I closed in and flushed a rooster that was close enough to make your heart skip a beat. I finally got my head down, followed through, and dropped the rooster in the heavy cover. Brian sent Sister in for the retrieve, and after an especially challenging search for a young setter, she came up with the bird. What a rush! I hope that as biologists, policymakers, landowners, and hunters we will continue to think outside the box to create programs like CREP that benefit collaborations to improve habitat complexes for wildlife, access for respectful hunters with their class bird dogs, and compensation for conscientious landowners.