Photo by Nikola Tomasic, Unsplash.

May 1, 2024

Safe Nest Cover, The Key to Sustaining Ring-Necked Pheasants in Agricultural Landscapes

In mid-February, two male ring-necked pheasants wandered through our yard on the north edge of town. As temperatures warm and days grow longer, rooster pheasants disperse across the landscape, establishing crowing territories and beginning behaviors to attract hens. The annual effort to maintain the species begins again.

During an overcast fall day, a tall grass prairie stretches into the distance against a horizon line of trees.
Native grass nest cover. Photo by John Cole.

The common small game species in Illinois have high rates of annual mortality and are dependent on high rates of reproduction for continued survival. These species are subject to mortality from weather extremes, predators and habitat destruction by humans. Wildlife biologists agree that successful reproduction is the most important factor in determining autumn abundance of these species. Factors affecting reproduction of these species have been a focus of wildlife research for many years. These studies have concluded that pheasant abundance is limited by the amount of safe nest cover throughout the Midwest.

Nest Cover for Ring-necked Pheasants

Hen pheasants prefer dense vegetation of sufficient height to provide overhead concealment. Nests have been established in mixtures of cool season grasses and legumes, warm season grasses and forbs, annual and perennial weeds, alfalfa, wheat and oats. Because of their growth form and phenology, wheat and oats contain fewer nests but have relatively high success rates. Vegetation must be at least 10 to 12 inches tall to attract nesting hens.

Studies indicate that one acre of undisturbed nest cover will produce one adult pheasant under average weather conditions. Since the per acre “yield” of pheasants is low, as much area as possible should be devoted to nest cover. Modeling suggests that maximum numbers can be achieved with 50 percent of the available area devoted to nest cover. Other studies have revealed that nest success is higher in blocks of nest cover 20 to 40 acres in size compared to smaller blocks or strips.

Breeding Season

A medium sized tan, brown, and black dappled female pheasant broods on a clutch of eggs on the nests.
A hen pheasant on the nest. Photo by Karl and Ali, CC BY-SA 2.0, Via Wikimedia Commons.

Depending on weather, winter flocks of pheasants break up as temperatures warm and day length increases. Roosters establish crowing territories, usually an exposed area adjacent to some form of escape cover (tall grass or brush). On spring mornings, roosters crow and display to attract a harem consisting of several hens.


After mating, the complex process of nesting begins. Hens scrape a shallow bowl on the ground and line it with a thin layer of grass leaves and stems. An average of one egg is laid per day until a clutch of 11 or 12 eggs is completed. Incubation begins when the clutch is complete. Hens incubate the eggs almost continuously for 21 to 23 days. Nesting may begin as early as March, but most nests are established by mid-May with the peak of hatching in mid-June. They will renest if a first nest is destroyed but clutch size declines with each renesting attempt. Studies indicate that up to 70 percent of the fall population of pheasants hatched in early summer.

After Chicks Hatch

After hatching, the hen and chicks quickly abandon the nest site to avoid predators and seek out stands of vegetation with less dense ground cover and adequate overhead concealment. Good brood habitat must be heavily populated with insects, the primary food source of pheasant chicks during the first several weeks of life. Insects provide protein essential for the growth of chicks. Within two weeks of hatching, chicks are able to fly short distances and increase their home range up to 50 acres. Broods remain intact for 12 to 14 weeks.

A medium sized tan, brown, and black dappled female pheasant walks along side her fluffy tan and brown chick in green grass.
Hen pheasant and chick. Photo by Manfred, Pixabay.

Nesting Season Perils

Unfortunately, the nesting season is fraught with danger, especially for hen pheasants and chicks.

Weather events may negatively affect nest success. Seasons with above average rainfall commonly have lower nest success and chick survival. In recent years, heavy rains and flash flooding have become more common in Illinois, not a positive change for nesting pheasants. Likewise, colder than average spring weather may reduce egg hatchability and lower chick survival.

A variety of mammalian predators (raccoons, skunks, opossums, ground squirrels) raid nests and consume eggs. Incubating hens also suffer considerable mortality from larger mammals (foxes, coyotes) and avian predators. Incubating hens and nests are often destroyed during hay harvest and the mowing of roadsides and idle areas. Studies in Iowa found that nest success in larger blocks of nest cover averaged 62 percent and nests in smaller patches and strips averaged 45 percent. Research also revealed that 74 percent of nest losses were due to predation and 26 percent of nest losses resulted from farm operations.

Chicks also suffer significant mortality. As mentioned previously, cold weather and excessive rainfall increase chick mortality. Chick mortality between hatching and maturity averages 50 percent. Those hatched earlier in the nesting season survive at higher rates than chicks hatched later in the summer through renesting efforts. Predation accounts for 80 to 85 percent of chick mortality, while exposure to cold weather or excessive rainfall accounts for 15 to 20 percent of chick mortality.

How Can We Help?

Various prairie flowers fill the view of one section of a grassland.
Diverse grass and forb brood cover. Photo by John Cole.

To increase pheasant numbers on land we own or manage we must make a conscious commitment to provide required habitat. As Illinois wildlife biologist John Roseberry once stated, “Wildlife habitat is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity.”

Hopefully, the preceding discussion illustrates the importance of providing an adequate area of high quality nest cover. To the extent possible, endeavor to develop large blocks of nest cover away from low lying areas. Assistance in planning and funding the establishment of grass forb nest cover is available from several sources, including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Pheasants Forever. Land rental can be obtained for certain practices from the Farm Service Agency.

Once established, grass forb nest cover must be actively managed to maintain the proper diversity and structure. Management must be implemented outside the nesting season (April 1 to August 1). Nest cover should be burned, disked or mowed once every three years. In large blocks, one-third of the block should be treated each year.

Mowing roadsides and other non-cropped areas should be delayed until August 1 each year. In my area, there is a tendency to delay mowing until corn and soybeans are planted in spring. This practice results in increased mowing during the peak of hatching in early June at the time when hens and chicks are most vulnerable.

Of all the factors we can control, untimely and unnecessary mowing is, by far, the most important.

A brown and tan medium sized bird forages for grain in a fallow snowy agricultural field.
Standing corn provides shelter and food. Photo by Roger Hill, courtesy of Pheasants Forever.

Much of Illinois’ pheasant range is devoid of shelter and escape cover. This habitat component can be provided by leaving some corn unharvested adjacent to grass forb nest cover. These blocks should be at least two acres in size (300 feet by 300 feet). With as much nest cover as is feasible, and some minimal shelter and escape cover, the ring-necked pheasant population will be sustainable year after year.


Clark, W. and T. Bogenschutz. 1999. Grassland Habitat and Reproductive Success of Ring-Necked Pheasants in Northern Iowa. Journal of Field Ornithology 70(3): 380-392.

John Cole grew up in Bradley (Kankakee County). He graduated from SIU Carbondale with BA in 1968 then served two years in the U.S. Army as medical technologist at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. After graduating from SIU Carbondale with an MS in 1973 he began to work for the then Illinois Department of Conservation as District Wildlife Biologist, headquartered in Gibson City in east-central Illinois. In 1993, Cole became the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Ag and Grassland program manager in Springfield, working there until his retirement in 2008.

Share and enjoy!

Submit a question for the author