Wild pheasants in Pennsylvania is a feeble vision for hunters
I often think about my initial hunting years, from the mid-‘60s to the early ‘70s, and reflect on those good times.
At that period of my life, it was mostly small-game hunting, with the stunning wild ringneck pheasant the primary quarry.
Spending summers watching hen pheasants with growing broods cross roadways, skirt corn fields or dash through open pastures, was always exciting and helped build the long and grueling wait to reach the sleepless Friday night before the opening of the small-game season.
Those couple of weekday mornings before the opener were filled with my careful listening to “cocks” crowing from different fields that ran toward a big patch of woods that grew behind my parents’ home. That was deemed important because, when an uncle and cousin would arrive early on those first mornings to join my father and I for the hunt, it was my scouting they counted upon to determine which field we would trek through first.
When the initial rooster flushed — his cackles ringing through a cool October morning — and the blast of a shotgun slightly preceding the folding of the bird … well, it was just short of heaven. So no sleep the night before was well worth the nuisance.
Those were, as so called now, “the glory days.”
A recent article in Pennsylvania Outdoors News asked the question if indeed there will ever again be stable, statewide wild pheasant populations in Pennsylvania. I truly doubt that will ever happen.
There are many obstacles to overcome, as the article stated, before hopes could even be elevated to a status of “Yes, it’s going happen.”
Certainly, some of the barriers, such as high predator populations, new diseases, chemical contamination and climate change, currently block a wild pheasant population recovery. But I believe that beyond anything else, the change in the way farmers now go about their business is the biggest deterrent.
In those early days of wild pheasants, farmers never took in their hay when hens had nests to hatch. Corn fields were cut much the same as now time wise, but they were often tangled with weeds that remained intertwined with foot-high corn stubble, offering both food and cover to the wild birds. Some harvested corn fields even saw farmers stack shucks and stalks from end to end, forming numerous “igloos” of corn fodder, which pheasants often hid within.
Fencerows were 15 to 20 foot wide and thick with vegetation, and wild birds could spend a winter within them safe from cold and well fed. Hillsides were overgrown with weeds and briars, their hanging fruit the food, their branches the cover.
But farmers farm differently now, utilizing every square inch of land for crops and cattle grazing. In truth, I cannot blame them at all, because it is how they pay the bills. But agricultural land usage change, and too much developed land between the fields and woods, means too little land space and cover for wild pheasants to survive.
There is one other thing to consider, and that is the stocking of pen-raised birds. A few years back I did a field survey for Outdoor News in Pennsylvania asking hunters if they’d like the resurgence of wild pheasants? To my surprise, they basically all answered the same way – that they are happy the way things are now, knowing they had birds to hunt when they went afield, and had no concern as to those birds being stocked.
Their rational follows: "Stocked birds are here now, and I’d rather not wait for wild birds to establish themselves.” And most respondents doubted a wild pheasant recovery will happen anyway.
So, with not enough suitable cover, heavy predation and a generation of hunters raised on the circumstance of the Game Commission’s stocking pen-raised birds for their hunting enjoyment, the chances for wild birds to once again sound-off in Pennsylvania’s fields and woodlands is virtually nil.
That’s a shame, but it is reality.