A licensed professional conducts a prescribed burn, creating a firebreak to contain the fire in the designated zone. NRCS photo by Brooke DeCubellis.

Pheasant Point: Burning to restore upland bird habitat

By Brooke DeCubellis, Natural Resources Conservation Service

For Bonnie Hurley and her late husband Dale, prescribed fire was a tool that they used to rejuvenate their grasslands and create ideal wildlife habitat for upland game birds in Lewistown in Logan County. Initially, the two leased the 110 acres for farming but ultimately decided that they wanted to create a wildlife habitat and enrolled the property into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  

“It was always my late husband’s vision to be able to conserve and give back,” Hurley said. “Dale loved upland bird hunting and being out in nature with his dogs and we both wanted to pass that legacy on to others.”

Bonnie Hurley and her late husband Dale wanted to leave by improving wildlife habitat on their Logan County property. NRCS photo by Brooke DeCubellis.

Under the guidance of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pheasants Forever, and other conservation experts, the Hurleys worked to put a habitat management plan in place. Once the Hurleys were enrolled in CRP, NRCS and Pheasants Forever helped the two restore their grassland habitat by planting native wildflowers, legumes and grasses. They also put down food plots, grit and restored some wetlands on the property through the Wetland Reserve Easement program.

“Pheasants need a good place to nest, a good brood-rearing and breeding habitat, and some place that can provide good cover during the wintertime,” said Cody Grasser, Pheasants Forever Ohio state coordinator. “When you have all of these things in fairly close proximity, gamebirds will have the habitat they need to reproduce with good survival rates, and they have the means to evade predators.”

With the habitat established, the Hurleys needed to find management solutions to keep the area free of woody plant encroachment and rejuvenate the grasslands on a rotating basis. 

“Prescribed fire is good tool to reset what we call the successional process. It keeps grasslands at different stages of growth, providing the different habitat needs for pheasants and other species,” Cody said. 

Restoring native warm season grasses offers additional benefits to pheasant and other gamebirds that a monoculture of cool season grasses does not. Warm season grasses form in clumps, creating natural paths for pheasant young to travel through. Cool season grasses are dense and uniform. Prescribed fires help native grasses thrive and cut down on dead plant material.

“A baby pheasant is a tiny, little chick — like a puffball. It’s not strong enough to push through dense vegetation. Where I’m standing was burned last fall, so it’s not too dense,” Grasser said. “The area also has a lot of broadleaf species, wildflowers and forbs, which offer overhead protection from avian predators. And a lot of those broadleaf species attract bugs, which are critical for the first several weeks of life.” 

Prescribed fires should be conducted at 3- to 5-year intervals. The timing of the burn can achieve different objectives — for instance, a springtime burn may help suppress cool season grasses such as fescue and ryegrass, while achieving greater native biodiversity. It also improves forage quality and quantity for cattle. A fall burn can be used to reduce woody encroachment on grasslands. 

Before conducting a burn, landowners should ensure that they have taken all steps to ensure a safe prescribed fire management plan. In Ohio, prescribed fires may be conducted during spring and fall months (March, April, May, October and November) when outdoor burning is otherwise prohibited by Ohio Revised Code 1503.18, but only with the written permission of the Chief of the Division of Forestry.

Pheasant chicks are able to maneuver through patches of native warm season grass clumps, while being protected from predators in the sky. Photo by Pheasants Forever.

A prescribed burn takes place under the careful watch of a certified burn “boss” or manager. This manager works with landowners to develop a burn plan ahead of time to ensure that the fire is contained and the sequence in which the burning will take place. The manager also secures permissions at the state and local level to conduct the burn and notify local authorities of when the burn is taking place.

“We encourage landowners to work with someone that’s a certified burn boss or burn manager to apply for the permits that are required through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio EPA,” said Nathan Weber, NRCS Wetland Team Leader. “We want to check with your county as well to make sure you’re following all of the local laws.” 

On a nearby property, contracted burn boss Joe Uhinck and his team prepared to conduct a prescribed fire on 20 acres of warm season grasses. The field had some woody plant encroachment and cool season grasses. Before beginning, Uhinck did a final evaluation to ensure a safe burn, taking into account the relative humidity, wind speed, air temperature and other factors. He also went over the burn plan with his team.

“On the field behind us, we’re going to start on the downwind side, kind of get a backing fire, and then we’ll bring up some flanking fires as that fuel starts to burn up,” Uhinck said. “We’ll be able to allow that to back away from the edges and get a nice, clean burn. Smoke is a big thing to watch for. So is wind direction.” 

The team was equipped with extra water, safety gear and buggies to move quickly around the burn site. Dividing into “ignition” and “suppression” teams, the crew started by lighting the edges of the field with drip torches to create firebreaks. Then they moved to the interior, with the fire picking up intensity. The team continued to monitor the edges of the fire and wind direction as smoke billowed into the sky. As the fire died down, onlookers could see that the grass stand had been reduced to gray ash.

“You know, at the beginning you think, oh my gosh, I’ve destroyed all that habitat with a burn,” Hurley said. “But that’s very short lived. It just did so much for the grasses and the habitat and the rejuvenation of the seeds and the ground.”

Other practices that help support pheasant populations include early successional habitat management, such as native grassland restoration, pollinator habitat creation and woodland edge-feathering, which are good supporting practices that will offer upland game birds more foraging and cover opportunities. 

“We worked to create an ideal environment and it seems to have succeeded, as we always have a pretty good population of pheasant,” Hurley said. “I feel that Dale would be very proud and so am I.”

Grasser believes that landowners enrolling in programs like Wetland Reserve Easements, the Scioto Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program help to ensure stronger pheasant populations. 

“We need to work on private land if we want to have a big impact,” he said. “Probably not coincidentally, the strongest pheasant populations are in counties with really high enrollment rates in these voluntary programs.”

Those interested in building wildlife habitat on private lands to attract gamebirds, deer and other wildlife or are interested in maximizing your foraging quality and quantity can get assistance from NRCS and other conservation partners standing by to offer financial assistance and technical expertise as well as wildlife expertise and some help with management.

For more information on these programs, reach out to a local Ohio USDA service center at offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app or ODNR’s Division of Forestry. For more about conserving pheasants, quail, and other wildlife through habitat improvements, reach out to a local Ohio USDA service center or  Pheasants Forever at pheasantsforever.org.

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