Bucks & Birds

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Great pheasant habitat also makes great white-tailed deer habitat, Here’s how to make any rooster haven a whitetail hideout too.

Story by Tom Carpenter, Editor at Pheasants Forever

While some Pheasants Forever members are upland hunters only, most of us hunt other game too. 
Chief among the other quarry is the white-tailed deer. Whitetails thrive across the pheasant range, and what is good for pheasants — think the Conservation Reserve Program or CRP, other Farm Bill programs, and PF’s habitat mission in general — is also good for deer. Still, there are additional habitat strategies and activities you can undertake to encourage the bucks and does to get in there and live with the birds.

So we went to three folks who think about deer too when they’re managing upland habitat for the birds. Ross Fogle is Pheasants Forever’s senior field representative for Northern Illinois while Cody Miller is president of the Douglas County chapter there, and B.J. Werk is a precision agriculture & conservation specialist for PF from western Minnesota. All three are confirmed whitetail nuts, and their all-wildlife-oriented habitat concepts and tips will work across the pheasant and whitetail range.

FEATURES OF GOOD PHEASANT HABITAT THAT ALSO MAKE IT GOOD DEER HABITAT
“In one respect, making great bird and buck habitat is simply installing highly diverse native plantings,” says Fogle. Monoculture grasslands just don’t do it for birds or bucks. “The multi-year conversion of more than 100 acres of row crops to high-quality prairie has yielded the greatest results on our family farm,” adds Fogle. “Ninety percent of a whitetail’s preferred diet is native browse, and these early successional habitat types provide the food and cover that create a powerful impact for both species,” Fogle says.


Werk echoes the diversity sentiment wholeheartedly: “A diverse seed mix for habitat cover — and that includes forbs, flowers and grasses — is the base for any birds-and-bucks acreage. Deer will browse on most anything, but they don’t want to go far to get it.” With high-quality prairie, deer can have their cover, alongside the birds … and eat that cover too.

“I think cover and food,” says Miller. “Cover meaning good places for pheasants to roost and loaf, and also to eat. These are the key factors for great deer habitat as well. Deer like cover to stay undetected and they do not like to travel far to eat. That’s the beautiful thing: birds and whitetails are much the same in the habitat features they need to survive.”

“And the farther north we go, you can’t forget thermal cover,” adds Werk from what can be a wintry tundra in Minnesota. Cattails and woody cover in the area are critical for winter survival of both birds and bucks.

RECOMMENDATIONS TO PROMOTE WHITETAILS WHILE ALSO BENEFITTING THE BIRDS
The trio recommends a handful of habitat actions that can benefit both whitetails and pheasants.

“Ask yourself this question first,” advises Werk. “Do I have the basics on my property to hold deer year-round?  Those basics are shelter, food and water. Enhance those features in that order.”

Werk and Miller agree, and have a strategy for achieving the first two priorities. 

“It’s simple. Add pollinator plantings,” says Miller. “Pollinator habitat provides cover, and at the same time food in the form of bugs for young birds and tender plants that come on all growing season long for the deer, and keep them there.”

“Yes, highly diverse pollinator habitat plantings provide that crucial year-round native browse that is needed for whitetails, especially for fawn recruitment and doe lactation,” explains Fogle. “Consider suppressing your current dense grass stands to diversify with a menu of forbs and flowers. With the correct timing and environment, prescribed fire or systematic chemical treatments can easily get you moving toward the needed vegetation diversity.” 

Werk mentions shelterbelts and CRP strips to serve as travel corridors between bedding havens and food sources. “Hunt the hallway between the bedroom and the kitchen,” he says, “and leave a portion of a property as an un-hunted sanctuary.” 

Miller offers a security cover tip, especially for areas where cattails are rare as winter cover for birds and deer. “Plant a small area in switchgrass and big bluestem so in the harsh winters you’re likely to still have good cover that will stand up to snow, ice and rain.”

Fogle recommends “softening the edges of cropland acres adjacent to mature wooded areas by creating transition zones for a whitetail’s travel from cover to food. Plant a minimum width of 60 feet of highly diverse native mixes adjacent to mature woody areas. This ‘soft edge’ provides additional browse for deer, and also creates bedding and nesting cover for brood and fawn recruitment.” 

“Similarly, install shrubby habitat or additional edge feathering along the open prairie,” Fogle adds. “Take advantage of a recent timber harvest by working alongside a forester to drop trees towards your soft prairie edges. These make great shelter areas for all wildlife, create a softened edge, and serve as potential areas that bucks will use during the rut to lock down with does.”

Photo by Gray Kramer

DETAILED PLANS FOR GO-TO FOOD PLOTS 

Along with basic cover needs, food plots are often a part of many wildlife habitat management plans. Here’s how our panel approaches the challenge.

SOYBEANS-AND-GREENS
“My go-to food plot is soybeans mixed with greens,” says Miller. “Soybeans are a great late season food source as they mature out. Clover serves as my main greens. Clover is great in all seasons.”

“I like to plant no less than two acres of beans with a half-acre of clover on one side or the other,” he describes. “During growing season the clover helps keep the deer focused there and not on the beans, giving them a chance to grow. It provides forage for pheasants too.”

“Deer will eat on clover before ever eating a bean,” he laughs. The clover can also be good for broods, especially if you don’t mow it until midsummer when the young birds are big enough to escape danger and have somewhere else to go.

CORN, BEANS AND COVER CROP FOR LATE SEASON
“Few food plot recipes are more attractive to whitetails and pheasants than small areas of standing corn and soybeans when winter hits and the bucks are rebuilding from rut and while pheasants are trying to just survive,” says Fogle.

“When my dad began planted cover crops to rotationally graze cows on corn stalks many years ago, it hit me one day that the practice was also a great opportunity to use in the standing corn and soybeans in our food plots,” he adds. “Now we overseed and broadcast a mix of brassicas, turnips and cereal rye (not ryegrass) directly over the plots. The results have provided deer with even more options in the standing grains,” and the birds appreciate the extra cover near the ground.

A PF FOOD PLOT MIX CAN BE KEY
“Alfalfa, corn, soybean, clovers, wheat, oats and brassicas are tops,” says Werk. “And PF’s Big Buck Brassica Mix about does it all,” and is great for both whitetails and pheasants.

“For the most part, the layouts of my food plots are fixed,” Werk continues. “Plots of 100 percent alfalfa and clover are excellent too, and I have them. These plots generally last 4 to 5 years with good maintenance.”

“About 60 to 70 percent of my food plots consist of corn and soybeans in a planned rotation,” he explains. “Alfalfa and clover comprise 20 percent of total plot acreage. The reaming plot acres end up being ‘rescue’ plantings of something else where we had a failure, or are trying new things.”

CONCLUSION
Because both whitetails and pheasants are so important to so many members, we’ll continue to cover different angles on the birds-and-bucks equation in future issues. Let the editor know if you have topics you’d like see covered.
(Lead photo by David McGowen)


Enjoy this story? This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 Issue of Pheasants Forever Journal. If you'd like to read more content like this, and join the only organization devoted to all things pheasants and pheasant hunting, become a member today!