The distinct sound of wild ring-necked pheasants in Pennsylvania has fallen silent over the decades. It’s green head, white neck ring and long tail is little more than a memory for a generation. Introduced to Pennsylvania in 1892, populations of the wild game bird grew until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. A once thriving population of birds is now virtually gone. “I actually looked at the data from 1966 to 2000, and pheasants across Pennsylvania have declined between 80 and 90 percent since 1966″ says PA Game Commission Wildlife Biologist Scott Klinger. He’s a researcher whose working to bring back the wild pheasant population. To give you an idea of the change; the pheasant population in Pennsylvania hit a high in the 1970’s with hunters harvesting about 1.3 million birds. That number now is just a few thousand. So where did all the birds? Hunters and others have a number of theories. Some suggest a growing number of protected hawks, owls, and other predators are gobbling up the wild birds and eggs. Others, including the PA Game Commission, point to major changes farming practices over the past 40 years or so. Specifically changes in 1974 to USDA programs that essentially paid farmers to not farm some of their land, and to instead keep those acres in conservation. Prime habitat for pheasant nesting and survival. In our area that meant 500 thousand acres of conservation land dropped to just 20 thousand. Klinger says, “So you can image if you take 500 thousand acres of nesting cover and knock it down to 20 thousand, look what you’ve done to the pheasants.” Over the years farmers also cut their hay fields earlier in the year, more often, and much closer to the ground. “In most hay fields today especially alfalfa hay is cut from May to November and it’s cut every thirty days and it’s cut down to one inch.” The peak hatching date for pheasants in Pennsylvania is the middle of June. In 2008 the Game Commission unveiled the ‘Ring-necked Pheasant Management plan’. Klinger says the effort includes re-establishing suitable habitat and bringing in trapped wild pheasants from out west. The hope is to get farmers to commit 8 to 15 percent of their land to conservation. “Wild pheasants plus the 10 to 15 percent grass cover, plus agriculture seems to be the magic bullet. Can we do it? Yes!”
In the dark of a cold March morning PA Wildlife Biologist Brandon Black releases several dozen wild pheasants on a Franklin County farm. The birds were trapped and transported from Montana. “These birds were flown in here. I picked them up from the airport. A sample of those were radio collared so we`ll be able to track their movements, and they were released onto suitable habitat here in Franklin County. A Native American tribe in Montana gave the Game Commission permission to trap and transport the birds. 58 in total. They are the first wild pheasants ever released into the Franklin County wild pheasant recovery area. “It’s different from our propagation program where we just raise a whole bunch of birds for the purpose of hunting. These are birds that are born and raised in the wild and have the natural wild instincts. And that`s why we bring those birds in here.” Four PA trapped roosters were also released to help balance out the sex ratio. The birds will be tracked pretty much daily. Researchers will watch their movements, where they`re nesting, and their habitat selection. “Our pheasant management plan calls for six years of no hunting at all so that the population can build up, and eventually we`ll have a sustainable population that can be hunted.” It’s an ongoing effort to return the sounds of the wild pheasant to the farms and fields of Pennsylvania. Black says “We understand that it’s never going to be like it was, but if we can get birds back to a huntable populations, then we think that hunters in PA will be happy about that.” As for the impact of predators, data from other states whose predator populations are higher than Pennsylvania’s still have wild pheasant populations that are flourishing. In the midwest and northern plains states conservation reserve programs have enrolled millions of acres of farmland, which is perfect pheasant habitat.