Pheasants in Austria

Key findings

  • Predation rates of pheasants at Seefeld, Austria are similar to those at Loddington and Tendring Hall in the UK.
  • Pheasant nesting success is lower at Seefeld than at Loddington or Tendring Hall.
  • Two in three chicks survive at Seefeld, compared with fewer than one in three on typical managed wild pheasant estates in England.
  • Chick-food insect availability is high at Seefeld, due to hot, dry summers.
  • Minimal use of pesticides and careful siting of brood cover at Seefeld increases availability of insects for pheasant chicks.

In 2003 we completed the final year of our wild pheasant study at the remarkable Seefeld Estate in Austria, which has among the highest densities of wild pheasants on record. The study enabled us to investigate in detail the survival, nesting and brood-rearing ecology of the pheasants and to find out why they are so successful there. The results of the research are applicable to the way we manage wild pheasants in Britain because the estate is a 2,400-hectare efficient arable farming enterprise managed in much the same way as most large British lowland estates that have an interest in shooting.

In collaboration with the University of Georgia, USA, we have radio-tagged and monitored 127 hen pheasants during the last three breeding seasons. We have collected information on the habitat selection of the hens during the pre-breeding dispersal period, the mating and nesting season and during the brood-rearing period. We have studied the nesting success of the birds and the survival of hens and broods. We also collected data on the diet of chicks and availability of insect chick food in different habitats.

Over the three years of the study, 60% of the radio-tagged hens survived the breeding season. Of the 40% that died, the majority of deaths were due to fox predation during the egg-laying and brood-rearing periods, although very few hens were lost while actually incubating their clutch. The levels of fox predation were very similar to predation rates on managed wild pheasant estates in Britain. We monitored 89 nests in the study, the majority of which were in cultivated fields and set-aside land. Set-aside was the habitat chosen most for nesting when the relative areas of all the habitats are taken into account. The proportion of nests that hatched was 41%.

In our radio-tracking studies in Britain, wild pheasant nesting success was 52% at Loddington (Leicstershire) and 49% at Tendring Hall (Suffolk). Of the nests that did not hatch, predation was responsible for the majority of losses. It is not surprising that nesting success was lower because there is a much wider variety of potential nest predators (both mammalian and avian) at Seefeld. However, after losing a nest, virtually all the hens attempted a second or third clutch.

We monitored 20 different broods and analysed their survival, diet and habitat use. They spent a lot of their time in cereal crops, set-aside land and sown game cover. Considering the relatively small areas of set-aside and game cover available, these were the habitats that were strongly selected by broods. Detailed analysis of the brood home ranges enabled us to find out exactly which types of areas they chose. For example, although broods used reedy areas infrequently, many broods selected home ranges that contained reed grass. Perhaps they use it as potential escape cover from predators?

This information can help us site and manage our brood-rearing covers more efficiently and highlights the importance of distributing brood-rearing cover around the farm. The average brood size was 5.9 and chick survival was 67%. In Britain, on managed wild pheasant shoots chick survival is typically around 30% (see Table 1).

Table 1: Breeding success of wild pheasants in Britain compared with Austria

  Britain Austria
Hen survival (April to July) 50-60% 60%
Average clutch size 11 10
Nest success (percentage of nests hatching 50% 41%
Chick survival 30% 67%

 

It appears that it is the high number of surviving chicks that is responsible for the high pheasant density at Seefeld. Insects, on which wild pheasant chicks are dependent for the first two weeks of life, were abundant in game covers and set-aside. The higher numbers of insects are mainly due to the relatively hot dry summers that Austria experiences, but minimal use of pesticides and the careful siting and provision of brood-rearing areas no doubt increase the availability of insects for pheasant broods too.

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