Southwest Minnesota study could help guide future grassland restoration projects
With the rain moving out of Redwood County, Lindsey Messinger and Greg Gehring hop out of the pickup truck and into the tall grass at the Lamberton Wildlife Management Area. Their mission: find nesting pheasant hens, document whether their eggs hatch successfully and relate that nest success back to the vegetation surrounding the nest.
On that rainy summer day, Messinger assembles a handheld radio antenna and begins listening for the tell-tale beeps of the radiocollars that they previously placed on captured pheasant hens. The crew uses the radiocollars to find the hens during nesting since camouflaged hens sitting on nests are like finding a needle in a hay stack in the grassland prairies of Minnesota. As Messinger points the antenna slightly to the southeast, the signal becomes stronger, giving her a better idea of the hen’s position. She and Gehring walk to the nest they’ve previously marked and find eight recently hatched eggs – good news after a wet spring.
Researchers are looking at pheasant hen nesting behavior and how nesting success and chick survival is influenced by the surrounding vegetation. They want to understand the interconnection to guide wildlife managers and private landowners who plant native grass and wildflowers in the state’s farmland in order to support wildlife populations, including pheasants.
“We’re looking at pheasant nesting behavior, and looking at the kind of habitat pheasants are selecting to make their nests,” said wildlife research biologist Lindsey Messinger. “And we’re documenting how vegetation influences nest survival and ultimately, pheasant production.”
Upon reaching the nest, Gehring immediately unpacks and assembles his measurement tools and marks a 4-meter radius around the nest. They record information about the vegetation surrounding the nest, including the number of different species of grasses and flowering plants, the density and height. They’re hoping it provides clues to not only the ringneck’s nesting preferences, but also how different types of vegetation mixes influence nest survival.
The pair move on to a second documented nest, which showed evidence that it became a predator’s meal. In measuring the vegetation, they’re looking for clues that might help them determine why a predator was able to find the nest.
“Are there differences in the habitat that surrounds the successfully hatched nest versus the nest that was depredated? That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Messinger said.
This work is part of a study by the DNR scientists who work within the Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research Group based in Madelia. The group’s role is to provide information needed to manage major wildlife species in the state’s farmland region.
While the three year-study wrapped up last year, researchers are taking advantage of radiocollars that still are functioning on hens that have survived beyond the duration of the primary study period. The study’s long-term goal is to help guide wildlife managers make decisions about planting grasses and wildflowers on wildlife management areas and other habitat restoration projects. Grassland habitat is critically important to pheasant populations.
“We know grass is really great habitat,” Messinger said. “But we also know that not all grasslands are created equal. Our research can help wildlife managers figure out things like how many different species of grasses or wildflowers to use in a reconstruction to best benefit pheasants.”
The hope is that the knowledge gained from this study benefits birds beyond ring-necked pheasants, including waterfowl and songbirds.
“Any time you’re putting habitat on the landscape and you’re creating environments that birds and other critters like, there are opportunities for wildlife viewing and hunting alike,” Messinger said.
With any luck, studying nesting behavior will provide insight as to what habitat helps pheasant hens successfully hatch nests and raise their broods. Once all the data are collected, Messinger and her team of researchers will analyze them, looking for clues in the hunt for ideal wildlife habitat.
More information about pheasant hunting and research reports can be found on the DNR website at mndnr.gov/hunting/pheasant.