In the Texas Panhandle
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) records, the first pheasants in the High Plains and Northern Rolling Plains of Texas immigrated from western Oklahoma in 1939 or 1940. Private releases of birds during the 1930s and 1940s by private landowners in the Panhandle of Texas also helped to establish populations of Ring-necked Pheasants in several areas of the region. In 1946, Paul V. Jones of the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission described the pheasant population in the Panhandle as being "extremely spotty in distribution and consisting of a drifting and very intermittent population." He estimated the maximum population size at 1000 birds and remarked "the true figure is in all probability considerably less than that."
In 1950, Ring-necked Pheasants occupied portions of at least 18 counties, occurring primarily along tributaries, rivers, and other riparian habitat corridors of the Texas Panhandle. The face of agriculture changed drastically during the 1950s as ranching on shortgrass prairie and dry land farming were replaced by irrigated cropland throughout much of the High Plains and Northern Rolling Plains. Unlike many of the other upland game birds that need and prefer rangeland, pheasants are dependent on landscapes dominated by cultivation. Pheasant populations grew with the increase in cultivation, furrow irrigation, and moderate farming intensity.
Occurrence of ring-necked pheasants in the region, coupled with recognition that land use changes altered, if not diminished habitat of many native game species, led TPW to initiate a program to release propagated pheasants in unoccupied areas of the Texas Panhandle. During this era, TPW, private individuals, sportsman, and civic groups were releasing birds concurrently. Areas stocked by TPW met minimum criteria of: (1) having at least 10,000 acres with large areas of grain farming; and (2) interspersed with pastures, hay fields and odd areas. Release of both captive raised and wild caught pheasants of several varieties or hybrids were made from 1964 to 1974 in Lubbock, Bailey, Hale, Carson, and Gray counties. These varieties of pheasants were selected in an effort to establish pheasant populations in marginal habitat. From 1960 to 1973, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service gave pheasants to landowners for release in Bailey, Crosby, Hale and Terry counties. Farm Bureau members in Swisher County released pheasants more recently. Pheasant releases by private individuals have been numerous and is impossible to quantify. These releases facilitated pheasant range expansion and establishment of birds south of the Canadian River "break country," which posed a geophysical barrier to southward migration of pheasants in the northern tier of Texas Panhandle counties. By 1977, pheasants occupied portions of 33 counties in the High Plains and Northern Rolling Plains.
In the 1980's, land use changes occurred throughout farmlands of the Texas Panhandle, this time to the detriment of pheasant populations. The popular row irrigation practice with resulting weedy ditches and tail water pits gave way to water efficient center-pivot irrigation systems and "cleaner" farming methods. The face of dry land farming also changed. The wheat-fallow crop rotation that typically included a 14-month fallow period was replaced by more intensive cropping systems that use herbicides on post-harvest wheat stubble. Additionally, as part of the Food Securities Act of 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was designed to conserve and improve soil and water resources by converting highly erodible farmland to permanent vegetation. Improved wildlife habitat was an expected benefit of the program. Permanent vegetative cover afforded by CRP has probably been beneficial to pheasants, but not enough to compensate for the 20-year decline in quality of large and small grain agricultural habitats.
Texas Panhandle pheasant populations have been monitored annually by TPW since 1976. During this time, pheasant population densities have fluctuated annually, depending on habitat conditions. Unfortunately for pheasants, the long-term (1977 - 2001) population trend is declining. More than likely, the days of peak pheasant numbers are gone forever. However, pheasant populations can be increased in localized areas by prescribing to management practices that encourage production or maintenance of food and cover.
Ring-necked Pheasant Surveys
The first TPW Ring-necked Pheasant census activities in the Texas Panhandle were pheasant crow counts initiated in May 1959, Dallam County. Crow and roadside counts were compared in subsequent years to monitor Panhandle pheasant population and distributional changes. Fall and summer roadside counts were selected in 1971 over crow counts as the best means of determining population trends. Beginning in 1976, Panhandle pheasant population trends have been monitored annually with fall roadside counts (range 8 - 45 surveys annually) conducted during October and November. Currently, 44 twenty-mile pheasant roadside counts are conducted annually in the Texas Panhandle. Surveys begin 15 min after sunrise and each route is driven at 20 mph. All pheasants observed are recorded at 1-mile intervals and are differentiated by sex. Surveys are not conducted when wind speed exceeds 18 mph or during precipitation events. Pheasant observations along each route fluctuate annually according to changes in associated agricultural and rangeland particles.
Basic Management Practices for Ring-necked Pheasant
- Plant permanent native grass + forb mixes on center-pivot corners.
- Maintain ample herbaceous cover in playa lake basins + waterways.
- Use no-till/low-till farming methods to maintain standing grain stubble.
- Prescribe to a 15" grain stubble cutting height.
- Leave rows of unharvested grain on field margins for protective cover.
- Delay mowing roadsides until late June.
- Interseed CRP grass monocultures with native forbs/legumes to increase plant diversity.
- Provide some standing water on ground throughout pheasant habitat.
Cook, G.D. and G.T. Miller. 2002. A primer: ring-necked pheasant habitat management in the Texas Panhandle. Texas Parks & Wildlife, Region I, District 2, Special Publication. 6pp
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