A FIZZLE OF PHEASANTS (October 21/13)

I figured my dog was sniffing out a pheasant when he hesitated for a few seconds in a half crouch and sneaked towards a patch of high grass.

It was at full dusk, as old-timers called it, when it might or might not be legal shooting time. I was leaving the river, taking a shortcut through a dyke field, when Jake started to work. Out of the grass just ahead of the dog a pheasant flushed and there was just enough light to see it was a rooster. Another rooster flushed and Jake froze; then another rooster came up, then two more.

Five cock pheasants in all, some of them cackling like young birds, erupted out of the grass while Jake and I stood there and watched. A bit farther out in the gloom two more pheasants flushed but it was too dark to determine hens from roosters. Off to my left three more pheasants flushed, one of them, from its raspy cackling, definitely a rooster.

It was good to see all those birds. With the pheasant season opening in a few weeks I had been scouting some of my favourite coverts without seeing much. Some of the recent reports of pheasant sightings hadn’t been encouraging. I hunt pheasants in Kings County, around dykes, marshes and farm fields mostly, and I usually walk these areas and talk to farmers through October. Until I ran into that great bunch of birds while coming back from duck hunting I figured pheasants were down in some of my favourite covers.

I’m not sure pheasant numbers are down overall but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were. Gloomy and negative as it may sound, I figure pheasants are on the way out, the population fizzling out the way Hungarian partridge did. I have no accurate count of pheasant numbers (unless you want to count the birds in the harvest estimates annually posted by the Department of Natural Resources) so this is just a guess. However, those estimates aren’t good since they seem to indicate a declining population. If they’re accurate – and it’s all anyone has to go on – then the population of wild pheasants does appear to slowly be declining.

Just over a decade ago the annual pheasant kill ran around seven to nine thousand three seasons in a row. Two seasons ago the estimated harvest was about 3,000 birds. There are always ups and downs in harvests of course, but with heavy skunk and coyote predation in recent years, along with some weird mixtures of nesting time weather, pheasants don’t appear to be springing back like they used to. Many farmers and people who feed pheasants tell me they’re seeing fewer and fewer birds every year, especially in areas noted for being prime covers.

I could be an alarmist but bottom line, pheasants, like the Hungarian partridge, will gradually disappear if all the government does year after year is set season dates and publish regulations; meanwhile ignoring problems such as predation, winter kill and overharvesting.

In other areas, where the pheasant is a prized game bird, the appropriate government departments set up food plots, stocks birds, offer free corn to encourage people to winter feed, and even tailor and manage pheasant habitat. Here most of the funds realised from hunting license sales appear to be set aside for deer management. Natural Resources keeps pheasant harvest records and tallies the abundance ratings but that does nothing to assist the pheasant population.

More should be done to manage the pheasant population other than keeping records. The Department of Natural Resources is against stocking but perhaps stocking is what’s needed. Ask yourself where trout fishing would be if it wasn’t for stocking. It was stocking that established the wild pheasant base we now have. If it’s needed to make sure the pheasant population doesn’t dwindle away to nothing, why not consider it. Take a look at funding winter feeding programs as well. Do something other than wait and see what nature, predators and hunting pressure have in store for the pheasant.

It looks like it is wait and see with ruffed grouse and hares as well. The harvest of grouse and hares has been fluctuating like crazy but mostly downward in recent seasons; we’ve seen some drastic drops in grouse and hare harvests, especially in Valley counties, but no alarms have been raised.

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