A fading symbol of autumn disappears
The year I turned 12 I got my first hunting license. It was my first chance to hunt ring-necked pheasants. My father brought birds home every fall, and I wanted to join the hunt.
My dad taught me to shoot with a used, single shot, 12-gauge shotgun. It was a lot of gun for a kid, but on opening day I was ready. I got my first cock bird that year.
Though the meat was delicious, my trophy was the bird’s central tail feathers. They measured almost two feet long, and I wore them proudly on my hunting cap.
Pheasants are birds of farm country. In the spring they nest in fencerows and hayfields, and in the fall they favor harvested cornfields littered with waste grain. When spooked they usually run, but they are capable of short powerful bursts of flight. A mature rooster weighs about 2.5 pounds.
Male pheasants are impressive. The iridescent bronze body is decorated with brown and black markings. A bright white ring separates the body from the greenish head. And during the breeding season, the male’s red face screams for attention. Hens are smaller and duller. This cryptic look is perfect for the parent that incubates the eggs and raises the chicks on her own.
Looking back, the ring-necked pheasant was my “spark bird.” That’s the species birders credit with hooking them on birds and birding. It was the most beautiful bird in my Golden Guide to Birds, and in life the red face and white ring around the neck were stunning.
In southeastern Pennsylvania in the mid 1960s, pheasants were common. The annual statewide pheasant harvest back then approached a million birds, according to Game Commission statistics.
In the spring I could hear the explosive crow of cock birds from my backyard. My dad and I would search for nests along fencerows and country roads. Ten to 12 eggs were typical, and after the 24-day incubation period, we often saw hens with chicks.
Those were the good old days. Today pheasant numbers have declined precipitously in the east. If it weren’t for state sponsored stocking programs, they just might disappear completely. Breeding bird survey numbers dating back to 1965 confirm this trend.
Some blame suburbanization, loss of farmland habitat, intensive agriculture, and increased use of pesticides and fertilizers for the pheasant’s decline. Another important factor is winterkill.
Pheasants can’t survive hard winters if quality winter habitat is in short supply. Frigid snowy winters in 1977 and 1978 followed by a big blizzard in March 1993 took heavy tolls on wild pheasants. They never completely recovered, and perhaps never will. And that’s a shame because there’s no more stirring sound than a rooster crowing in spring and no more beautiful bird than a male ring-necked pheasant in breeding plumage.
Though native to Asia, pheasants have a long history in North America. The earliest attempts to introduce them to this continent date back to the 1700s. These first efforts were unsuccessful, but finally in 1881 a population was established in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Here in the east, private citizens began importing pheasants in the early 1890s. For several decades these releases helped establish the pheasant as a game bird for sport hunting.
In the early 1900s the Pennsylvania Game Commission began propagating pheasants, and the state’s first stocking took place in 1913. For several years the population fluctuated until the state imposed hunting seasons and bag limits in 1923. In 1929 Pennsylvania established two game farms and extensive propagation began.
Through the 1960s pheasants flourished in Pennsylvania, and it became a popular game bird. But in the 1970s, things changed. Agriculture became more intensive, and the use of chemicals increased. Family farms were sold to make room for housing developments, shopping malls, and parking lots. From the mid 1970s through the early 1980s, Pennsylvania, for example, lost approximately 900,000 acres of farmland to urbanization. Nearby states experienced similar habit losses.
Today only isolated, remnant populations of pheasants persist in most places. I suspect that most of the birds I occasionally see are escapees from exotic bird breeders. If I had known what the future held for pheasants back when I was a boy, I would have treasured these spectacular birds even more.
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Contact Shalaway via e-mail at email@example.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.