The ring-neck pheasant was a very popular game bird at one time but now only exists through state stocking programs and private shooting preserves. This non-native game bird was released across North America in the 1800s and early 1900s. In 1968, approximately 272,000 hunters harvested 521,000 pheasants but the bird population started dropping in the 1970s. The decline has continued and is basically caused by a lack of good habitat. Great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, foxes and raccoon are the main predators of pheasants and account for 94% of the mortality in western New York state. One would think that eliminating some of these predators would help solve the problem but it is really the loss of good habitat that exposes these birds to them and the fact that it can be very difficult to control the predators. The birds of prey (hawks and owls) are protected by State and Federal laws and when fur prices dropped the mammal predator populations skyrocket.
Improving the habitat with such programs as the Conservation Reserve Program, that set-aside land for 10 years will help with out predator control. Also groups of sportsmen, such as Pheasants Forever, that are improving the habitat by their promotion and aid in planting good habitat also helps.
Unfortunately the present day conditions we live in will never allow us to return to the type of farming practices we once had that made the pheasant a prominent game bird in NYS. Land is also being swallowed up by development for our increasing human population.
To supplement this loss the state DEC releases adult pheasants on lands open to public hunting each year just before the season opens. This year they will release 30,000 birds across the state that were raised at the DEC’s Reynolds Game Farm in Ithaca. This is strictly a “put and take” program as few of the birds that survive the hunting season make it until spring to mate. Our own Oak Orchard and Tonawanda Wildlife Management Areas receive approximately 1,200 of these birds each year. Other areas that receive these birds are the John White Game Farm, the Darien Lake, Joseph Davis, Golden Hill and Wilson-Tuscarora State P arks.
Another effort to provide pheasants is the Day-Old Chick Program which provides day-old chicks to cooperating 4-H groups, sportsmen clubs, county federations, landowners and the NYS Department of Corrections. These birds are raised until the age of 7 weeks old and then released on lands of suitable habitat. When I was a kid I raise around 600 birds over the years through this 4-H program and most of my birds were leg banded. My dad and I where avid pheasant hunters but we never got any of those birds during the hunting season. Probably for the same reasons as mentioned in the open paragraph of this column.
The pheasant season opens this weekend (October 17th and runs until December 31st) with a daily bag limit of two birds. On the Tonawanda and Oak Orchard WMA’s no hunting is allowed for them on Tuesdays or Fridays when they are released.
It is a shame that such a wonderful and beautiful game bird has disappeared from our fields. I grew up hunting them with my Dad when they survived and reproduce on their own. They were a very sporting bird to hunt often requiring a really good bird dog. Their flush was always startling and wild and they really up set off your nerves when they did (often the reason they were missed !). The meat was simply delicious and they were a easy bird to clean. When I came home from Nam in 1970 there were no longer any birds left in the areas where we normally found them plentiful and it is one of the reasons I turned to waterfowl hunting.
Other hunting seasons also open up on Oct. 17 which includes waterfowl and turkey. Of course deer hunting with a bow is already open so there are plenty of hunters out there now. For those of you who don’t hunt keep this in mind when you want to take hikes or look for wildlife in the Great Outdoors. Be safe, stay alert to what is going on around you and wear some florescence red or orange clothing.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or firstname.lastname@example.org .