Wild pheasant population is thriving, expert reports

WASHINGTONVILLE – Since the mid-1970s, Pennsylvania’s once thriving population of wild pheasants has decreased to dangerously low numbers.

While an effort was made to supplement the population by releasing farm-raised birds, studies soon proved that the domesticated pheasants did not possess the skills to survive in the wild.

However, in 2007, as part of the state Game Commission’s Habitat Conservation program, environmental experts trapped wild pheasants from Montana and South Dakota. These birds, released across Pennsylvania in various locations, appear to be doing exceptionally well in their new habitats.

Colleen DeLong, biologist with the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, is one of the scientists who were instrumental in capturing, relocating and tracking the progress of the transplanted birds. On April 10, she met with environmentalists at PPL’s Montour Environmental Preserve to discuss the birds and the program that funded their cross-country move.

“These birds are not only surviving and reproducing; some of them are becoming excellent birds – large, healthy specimens,” DeLong said.

“Pheasants in this state used to be a hunter’s dream. Older hunters who remember have told me, back when the pheasants where thriving, if they didn’t bag their limit by lunch on the first day of the season, it was because they were out of shells,” DeLong said.

However, the birds thrive best in a habitat comprised of agriculture and grasslands. The grasslands provide cover and a safe place to nest, while agricultural fields provide food to eat, she explained.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, also known as CREP, was a key turning point for the pheasant population, she said.

Farmers who sign up for the program enroll a portion of their land. The fields then are planted with grasses instead of crops. Because these grasslands are close to planted fields, they create an ideal habitat for the wild pheasants to nest and thrive.

Pheasants aren’t the only animals who benefit from the grasslands. DeLong said numerous birds, such as the meadowlark, short-eared owl and yellow breasted warbler, all thrive in this type of environment.

Currently, there are pheasant-release locations in Columbia, Montour and northern Northumberland counties.

On average, there are estimated to be about four wild pheasant hens per square mile in Pennsylvania.

However, DeLong reported that there are about 18 hens per square mile in areas where pheasants were released as part of the program.

According to DeLong, environmentalists are not planning on releasing any more birds this year. However, the state Game Commission recently decided to extend the ban on hunting these birds through 2013.

“There’s currently a ban on hunting the newly released birds. It also prevents hunters from training their dogs on them. The hope is that this will allow the birds to get acclimated and settled,” she said.

DeLong also said the enhancement program is accepting new applications from farmers and landowners. More information about the program can be found at www.pa.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/CREP/crp.html.