Cold February mornings and scraping ice off windshields are seldom associated with anything dealing with pheasant season, but in reality this is the time of the year when members of sportsmen's organizations with approved propagation facilities can take the first step on the path that leads to augmenting ring-necked pheasant stockings and increase hunting opportunities this fall.

Those qualifying organizations are eligible to apply for and raise day-old pheasant chicks that are supplied free-of-charge by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Information and applications to participate can be downloaded from the agency's website at http://www.pgc.state.pa.us/, and completed applications must be received by March 31 in order for Bureau of Wildlife Management game farm superintendents to plan and set hatches to accommodate requests.

In 1929, the PGC began the propagation of pheasants on an extensive scale with the establishment of two game farms. Over the next six decades, to off-set the increasing demand for pheasants from hunters, three other farms were placed into operation, and the day-old pheasant chick program was implemented and made available to sportsmen's organizations, 4-H clubs, farmers, and other cooperators for rearing and releasing on areas open to public hunting.

An all-time high of 229,685 pheasant chicks were distributed to cooperators in 1959, which were in addition to the more than 88,500 pheasants raised and released by the agency. Cooperator participation has dwindled significantly over the last few decades, and in recent years approximately a dozen clubs have participated and raised and released 4,000-5,000 birds.

Budgetary constraints forced the PGC to reduce its annual pheasant stocking allocation from 200,000 to 100,000 in 2005, however, as part of the agency's pheasant management plan and the recent realization of increased revenues from Marcellus shale natural gas development on State Game Lands, the agency increased that stocking effort to 200,000 birds for the 2012-13 seasons.

PGC Bureau of Wildlife Management director Calvin DuBrock said the agency provides free of charge, day-old pheasant chicks to clubs entering into an agreement with the agency to raise birds and promote recreational hunting on lands open to public hunting. Gender is not determined as the chicks are boxed for distribution, but are generally at a one-to-one male/female ratio, and the number of chicks received depends on the size of the club's facility.

To be eligible to receive pheasant chicks, a sportsmen's club is required to have a minimum of 25 square feet of covered pen space available per bird. In addition, 72 square inches of floor space per chick is recommended in the brooder building. All feed and expenses incurred in the work of constructing covered pens and raising pheasants will be the responsibility of the club. All pheasants propagated by organizations must be released on lands open to public hunting.

"We recommend releasing some hen pheasants in early September in areas where habitat is sufficient to provide food and cover," DuBrock said. "These birds can provide good dog training opportunities and releasing hens early also provides additional room in the pen to finish growing out the males for the hunting season."