The ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) may be the most popular game bird in the state of Kansas, with between 110,000 and 150,000 hunters pursuing the species each season. Estimated annual harvests have ranged from a low of 425,000 to a high of 824,000 cocks since 1990, typically placing Kansas in the top 3 or 4 pheasant hunting states in the U.S.
Ring-necks were first introduced in Kansas with the release of 3,000 birds in 84 counties in the spring of 1906. The species adapted well to Kansas conditions and populations gradually increased in response to the excellent interspersion of grain fields with permanent habitats and to the relatively primitive agricultural practices of the time. The first pheasant season in Kansas was opened statewide from December 1st to 15th in 1917. Following a period of season closure from 1921 to 1931, limited hunting seasons on ring-necks resumed in 1932. Seasons were gradually liberalized over the next 5 decades until a stabilized season format was instituted in 1982. The season began on the second Saturday in November and ran through January 31 with a bag limit of 4 cocks per day until 2006. In 2006, the pheasant season was opened on the first Saturday in November and ran through the end of January. The daily bag limit did not change.
The ring-necked pheasant is a polygamous species. This means that one rooster will mate with many hens, just as a buck deer can mate with many does. Kansas’ cocks-only harvest regulations, and those of other pheasant states, are designed with this in mind. It has been scientifically estimated that 80 to 90% of the ring-neck roosters present in fall can be safely harvested through hunting without hindering reproduction the following spring. Ratios of pheasant cocks to hens in spring indicate that Kansas’ pheasant harvest is very conservative, never remotely approaching this maximum allowable harvest. Under the cocks-only format, a reduction in season length or bag limit will do nothing to increase pheasant populations, although such requests are sometimes received from well-intentioned members of the public.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks monitors pheasant populations through the use of 4 different types of surveys. The Pheasant Crowing Survey is a listening survey conducted from April 25th to May 15th by KDWP staff along 63 permanently-assigned routes throughout the Kansas pheasant range. The Summer Brood Survey involves KDWP field staff recording all their pheasant observations between mid-July and the end of August. The Rural Mail Carriers Survey is performed 4 times a year with the invaluable assistance of 400–500 rural mail carriers stationed around the state. The Small Game Harvest Survey allows KDWP staff to estimate overall harvest of pheasant and other small game species with the help of hunters who provide their hunting results on a questionnaire following the close of the small game seasons. Each of these surveys provides rangewide and regional "indices" to annual change and long-term trends. These indices are not suitable for county-to-county comparisons by hunters seeking to maximize hunting success. Hunters should consult the annual upland bird hunting forecast, usually available in mid-September, in that regard.
Most pheasants in Kansas typically begin initiation of egg-laying in late April or early May, leading to a hatching peak that usually occurs in the first or second week of June. Some of the very earliest nests may hatch as early as late April and the latest as late as mid-August. Wheat is a very important pheasant nesting habitat in Kansas and ring-neck production, in any given year, is often linked to the quality of the wheat crop. Moisture and weather conditions that lead to strong early growth of wheat, a prolonged period of maturation, and a later-than-normal wheat harvest will usually result in good pheasant nesting success. Conversely, drought or excessively warm conditions often stunt initial wheat growth, accelerate maturation, and result in an early wheat harvest, all of which reduce pheasant production success.
Annual fluctuations in Kansas pheasant numbers tend to be driven more by spring and summer conditions than by winter conditions. While Kansas certainly sees its share of dangerous blizzards, losses of adult pheasant during such events generally do not reach the level of magnitude as potential summer losses. Severe drought and/or exceptionally hot spring or summer conditions may result in proportionally greater pheasant production losses by reducing habitat quality and by directly stressing the birds, especially chicks. Drought can also reduce the availability and quality of cover and food during the subsequent winter. In most of Kansas’ pheasant range, except possibly the northeast, above average precipitation is usually beneficial for pheasant production.
Historically, Kansas’ best pheasant populations were in northwest and southwest Kansas, with northcentral Kansas also producing good populations. Long-term changes in agricultural practices have produced significant declines in pheasant numbers in far western Kansas. In recent years, Kansas’ greatest pheasant densities have occurred in a band that includes the eastern 5 tiers of counties in KDWP Region 1 and the eastern 4 to 5 tiers of counties in Region 3, excepting counties along the Oklahoma border. However, significant pheasant hot spots outside this band do sometimes occur further west in Regions 1 and 3, the westernmost counties of Region 2, and in northern or western counties of Region 4. Pheasants have never established significant populations in southeast Kansas, despite historical releases. They are absent from most of Region 5 or exist at very low densities in the northern and western tiers of counties in this region.
Brood rearing habitats (areas of broad-leaved plants such as annual weeds or perennial legumes) are generally considered most limiting for pheasants in Kansas, but better winter habitats (weed patches, shrub thickets, tall grasses) are also needed in some areas. Over the past decade, KDWP biologists and land managers have focused heavily on providing better brood cover on public lands and on finding ways to integrate quality brood cover and winter cover into cropping systems on private farmlands. KDWP staff have worked cooperatively with USDA officials to improve the quality of habitats provided through federal farm legislation, particularly through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
Great potential to intersperse permanent habitats with existing croplands exists within provisions of the Continuous Signup of the CRP. In cooperation with Kansas State University agronomy staff in western Kansas, KDWP biologists have also developed and researched a set of recommendations for wheat cropping systems in western Kansas (particularly wheat–fallow) that are beneficial to both pheasants and farm profitability . Kansas landowners interested in improving pheasant habitat should contact their nearest KDWP District Wildlife Biologist.
Here is one way to begin preparing pheasants for the table.
Equipment needed: a sturdy pair of kitchen or game shears.
At all steps in the process take care to avoid cutting yourself on the sharp edges of broken bones.
Thanks to Ray Fischer, Claflin for his assistance in this project.
The KDWP upland game bird initiative is availabe to interested landowners in Region 1, 2, 3 and 4. Financial incentives and cost-share assistance is available for forb interseeding, prescribed burning, strip disking, legume interseeding, forb and native grass seedings, and food plot establishment. Most of these practices can be implemented on CRP lands, where the district wildlife biologists will work with your local NRCS/FSA office to amend your existing CRP contract so that habitat practices can be implemented. For more information contact your local Fisheries and Wildlife Regional Office .
2015 KANSAS UPLAND BIRD HUNTING FORECAST
Two important factors are considered when predicting upland bird populations for the upcoming fall hunting season: the number of viable breeding adults available last spring and the reproductive success of this breeding population. Reproductive success is determined by the number of nests successfully hatched and the number of chicks that survive into the fall population. For pheasant and quail, annual population turnover is relatively high, therefore the fall population is more dependent on reproductive success than breeding population levels. Annual population turnover is not as high for prairie chickens, but reproductive success is still the major population regulator and important for good hunting opportunities. The following forecast is based on spring breeding surveys for pheasants (crow counts), quail (whistle counts), and prairie chickens (lek counts), as well as late-summer roadside surveys to determine nest success for pheasants and quail. Reproductive success of prairie chickens cannot be easily assessed using the same methods because they generally do not associate with roads like the other game birds.
Rain in the summer of 2014 improved habitat conditions in many areas of the state after several years of severe drought. As a result, nest success and chick survival were higher and boosted 2015 breeding populations. While last winter was dry, precipitation in early spring improved rangeland and CRP recovery, stimulating the growth of annual weeds, and promoting insect emergence. With improved nesting and brood conditions throughout much of the state, nest success and chick survival improved again this year. However, there were some areas where heavy rainfall negatively impacted upland bird production.
With this increased rainfall, the entire state moved out of emergency drought conditions, and after four consecutive years of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands being released for emergency haying or grazing, none will be released this year. The disturbance from haying and grazing can improve the quality of habitat provided by older CRP stands , and with the precipitation received in many areas of the state this spring and summer, CRP is expected to provide excellent habitat for production in the next several years.
Hunters will find better bird hunting this fall as a result of improved production. However, due to the limited breeding population in most areas, overall harvest will likely remain below average. The regular opening date for the pheasant and quail seasons will be November 14 for the entire state. November 7-8 will be designated for the youth season. Youth participating in the special season must be 16 or younger and accompanied by a non-hunting adult who is 18 or older. All public wildlife areas and more than 1 million acres enrolled in the Walk-In Hunting Access Program (WIHA) will be open for public access during the youth season. Please consider taking a young person hunting this fall so they might have the opportunity to develop a passion for the outdoors that we all enjoy.
PHEASANT – Increased production in 2014 led to significant increases in the breeding population in all six pheasant regions this spring. While 2014 moisture was too late for pheasants to realize the full benefits, the timeliness of spring rains this year created excellent conditions entering the nesting season. Rainfall in eastern regions was extremely heavy and limited brood survival but overall increased precipitation had a positive impact on production, which combined for a statewide 51 percent increase in the summer brood counts compared to 2014. This increase should offer an improved hunting season this fall, particularly in areas where birds were found last fall. However, given populations were at modern-day lows after three years of drought, Kansas overall pheasant harvest this fall will likely remain below average. Even though additional good production years will be required for range-wide recovery, Kansas has one of the best pheasant populations in the nation and the fall harvest will again be among the best. Top areas this year will likely be in the Northern High Plains (northwest) and Smoky Hills (northcentral) regions.
QUAIL – The statewide breeding population index for quail increased again this year by 41 percent compared to 2014. With the later nesting chronology of quail compared to pheasant and tenacious renesting behavior exhibited by quail, summer precipitation in 2014 provided ideal conditions for production. Last year’s mild winter also contributed to the breeding population increase. Conditions were again good for production across much of the state this year, although heavy rainfall likely limited production in eastern regions. Roadside surveys showed a statewide increase of 48 percent compared to 2014. Kansas maintains one of the best quail populations and the fall harvest will again be among the best in the country. While populations in portions of the central and western part of the state have not fully recovered from the drought, two consecutive seasons with good conditions have increased regional population indices to above average. Opportunities should be good throughout most of the state this year, with the best opportunities found in the Flint Hills and Southcentral Prairies regions.
PRAIRIE CHICKEN - Kansas is home to greater and lesser prairie chickens. Both species require a landscape of predominately native grass. Lesser prairie chickens are found in west-central and southwestern Kansas in native prairie and nearby stands of native grass established through the CRP. Greater prairie chickens are found primarily in the tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies that occur in the eastern third and northern half of the state.
With the listing of the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the lesser prairie chicken is now protected and cannot be legally harvested or possessed. New prairie chicken units have been established to close prairie chicken hunting in areas containing only lesser prairie chickens and areas where the two species overlap (See unit map). Greater prairie chickens may be harvested during early prairie chicken season (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15) and the regular season with a two-bird bag limit in the Greater Prairie Chicken Unit. All prairie chicken hunters are required to purchase a $2.50 prairie chicken permit. This permit allows KDWPT to better track hunters and harvest, which will improve management.
Prairie chicken populations were generally up where the appropriate habitat exists. The Flint Hills population has responded positively to drought management strategies while the Smoky Hills population is rebounding with improved conditions. Hunting opportunities should be improved throughout the greater prairie chicken hunting unit; however the best opportunities this fall will be in the Smoky Hills Region where public access is more available within the chicken habitat.
NORTHERN HIGH PLAINS
This region has 11,809 acres of public land, and 341,005 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.
Pheasant – Improved conditions across much of this region resulted in a 130 percent increase in the pheasant roadside densities compared to 2014, the greatest improvement observed this year, but still well below average. The Northern High Plains also claimed the highest regional pheasant index on the brood survey this year. Hunting opportunities should be improved throughout most of this region but given the limited breeding population, harvest will remain below average. The highest densities will be found in the northern half of the region.
Quail – Spring densities showed a large increase but summer brood surveys were stable to slightly decreasing. This area is at the extreme northwestern edge of bobwhite range in Kansas, and densities are relatively low compared to central Kansas. As populations continue to recover from drought-related declines, hunting opportunities in this region will be limited. The best areas will be in the eastern and southeastern counties where adequate cover is present.
Prairie Chicken – Prairie chicken populations have expanded in both numbers and range within the region over the past 20 years. Lesser prairie chickens occur in southern and central portions of the region, which are included in the Southwest Unit and closed to prairie chicken hunting. In the Greater Prairie Chicken Unit, the better hunting opportunities will be found in the northeastern portion of the region in native prairies and nearby CRP grasslands.
This region has 75,576 acres of public land, and 294,037 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.
Pheasant – The Smoky Hills spring breeding population index increased nearly 50 percent compared to 2014 and spring precipitation created good nesting conditions this year. This resulted in a 40 percent increase in the summer brood survey compared to 2014. Drought conditions persisted into mid-summer in the northcentral portion of this region and roadside indices were stable to declining in this area. Highest densities were found in the northeast portion and southern tier of counties in the region, with good densities found sporadically thorough the rest of the region.
Quail – The spring breeding population increased in this region again, with the population index increasing by 51 percent this year. Following excellent production conditions this summer, the brood survey increased by 92 percent compared to 2014. Quail populations in northcentral Kansas are always spotty due to a corresponding distribution of habitat. Areas within the northeastern portion of this region appear to hold the best densities for hunting this fall with good densities also being reported within the southern tier of counties. There are reports of fair to good quail numbers in several other areas throughout the region and given the habitat conditions, quail hunting should be good across most of the region this year.
Prairie Chicken – Greater prairie chickens occur throughout the Smoky Hills where large areas of native rangeland are intermixed with CRP. This region includes some of the highest densities and greatest hunting opportunities in the state for greater prairie chickens. Improved rangeland conditions resulting from a combination of precipitation and cattle reduction (resulting from the long term drought) should have positive impacts on densities this fall. The best hunting will likely be found in the central portion of the region, but several other counties also hold relatively high densities of birds. Lesser prairie chickens occur in a few counties in the southwestern portion of the region, located within the closed Southwest Unit.
This region has 60,559 acres of public land, and 51,916 of WIHA open to hunters this fall.
Pheasant – Spring crow counts this year indicated breeding populations of pheasants slightly improved over 2014. Extremely heavy precipitation plagued this region through much of June and July and likely had negative impacts on chick survival. Roadside surveys indicated a 48 percent decrease in densities compared to 2014. Pheasant densities across the region are typically low, especially compared to other areas in western Kansas. Good hunting opportunities will exist in pockets of habitat, primarily in the northwestern portion of the region.
Quail – Breeding populations were slightly increased and relatively high for the region. Heavy precipitation also limited success of quail production, particularly of early nests. The brood survey indicated a slight decrease in the regional quail index, but large average brood sizes and carryover adults should provide good hunting. Hunting opportunities in the region are expected to be similar to last year and best areas should be in the northern tier counties.
Prairie Chickens – Very little prairie chicken range occurs in this region, and opportunities are limited. The best areas are in the western edges of the region along the Flint Hills, where some large areas of native rangeland still exist.
This region has 80,759 acres of public land, and 29,037 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.
Pheasant – This region is outside the primary pheasant range, and very limited hunting opportunity is available. Pheasants are occasionally found in the northwestern portion of the region in very low densities.
Quail – Breeding populations in this region have been steadily increasing over the last six years and increased slightly again this year. Rainfall was extremely heavy in the eastern portions of this region and negatively impacted production in those areas. Spring population indices are above the 15-year average but remain below historic levels across the bulk of the region due to extreme habitat degradation. Production this summer appears to have been good in the region with brood survey indices that are similar to 2014. Several areas throughout this region should offer fair to good hunting with the best opportunities found in western counties along the Flint Hills and in counties in the southcentral portion of the region where appropriate cover exists.
Prairie Chicken – Greater prairie chickens occur in the central and northwestern parts of this region in large areas of native rangeland. Populations have been in consistent decline over the long-term. Infrequent fire has resulted in woody encroachment of native grasslands in the area, gradually reducing the amount of suitable habitat. The best hunting opportunities will be in large blocks of native rangeland, primarily located along the edge of the Flint Hills region.
This region has 128,371 acres of public land, and 64,636 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.
Pheasant – This region is on the eastern edge of pheasant range in Kansas, and well outside the primary range. Pheasant densities have always been relatively low throughout the Flint Hills and highest densities are typically found along the western edge of the region. The spring breeding population index remained static this year and summer brood surveys indicated a slight increase. The best opportunities will be found in the northwestern area of the region.
Quail – There was a 30 percent increase in the index for breeding bobwhites this spring, resulting in a very strong breeding population. Brood survey results indicated densities were similar to slightly increased this year and this region held the highest densities from roadside counts in the state this summer. Quail densities will likely be limited in the core of the Flint Hills where large-scale annual burning and chemical control of shrubs have removed key components of quail habitat. However, the remainder of the Flint Hills should offer good hunting opportunities this fall.
Prairie Chickens – The Flint Hills is the largest intact tallgrass prairie left in North America. It has served as a core habitat for greater prairie chickens for many years. Since the early 1980s, inadequate range burning frequencies have gradually degraded habitat, and prairie chicken numbers have been declining as a result. The core of the Flint Hills is typically burned annually and after several years of being unable to burn due to drought, the improved range conditions this year allowed wide-spread burning to return. However, burning has not yet returned to normal levels and there has been more nesting cover available than in average years. There are some reports of prairie chicken broods, and hunting opportunities will likely be improved over last year throughout the region.
This region has 19,534 acres of public land, and 65,224 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.
Pheasant – The spring pheasant crow survey index indicated a 52 percent increase from 2014. The summer brood survey also showed an increase of nearly 70 percent. After four consecutive years of CRP being released for emergency haying/grazing in nearly all counties of this region, no CRP was released in 2015, which should improve the quality and quantity of cover on these acres this year. The best hunting opportunities will be in the northcentral and central portions of this region.
Quail – This region generally has some of the highest quail densities in Kansas; however, populations are still recovering from the severe drought conditions experienced from 2011-2013. The breeding population index rebounded this year by 50 percent and the brood survey indicated nearly a 170 percent increase in quail density in the region this summer. This region should provide good bobwhite hunting opportunities this fall. Greatest densities will be found in the central and west-central counties, with other opportunities for this species also likely in patches throughout the region where adequate habitat exists.
Prairie Chicken – This region is almost entirely occupied by lesser prairie chickens and areas included in the Southwest Unit are closed to prairie chicken hunting. Greater prairie chickens may occur in very low densities within the limited area of rangeland tracts in the northeast portion of the region.
SOUTHERN HIGH PLAINS (SOUTHWEST)
This region has 111,079 acres of public land, and 185,298 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.
Pheasant – After record lows last year, this spring’s breeding population showed a nearly 180 percent increase, which captures the highest spring density and greatest improvement in the state this year. Precipitation in this region over the last year has greatly improved vegetative cover. The summer brood survey indicated that densities in the region improved by 47 percent. While the regional improvement was encouraging, densities in many areas of the region remain low despite the improved conditions, due to limited breeding populations. Multiple years of good conditions will be required for recovery to pre-drought population levels. Hunting opportunities should be relatively good in the eastern counties and spotty throughout the rest of the region.
Quail – The breeding population in this region tends to be highly variable depending on available moisture and resulting vegetative conditions. Quail densities from the spring whistle surveys were greatly improved compared to 2014, having the highest regional spring density this year. Timing for precipitation in the area created good conditions for production this year. Brood survey results indicated there was a large increase in quail densities, but overall densities were still comparatively low considering other regions. Given the large breeding population and improved production, hunting opportunities should be good where appropriate cover exists.
Prairie Chicken – This region is entirely occupied by lesser prairie chickens and is within the Southwest Unit, which is closed to all prairie chicken hunting.