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The Pheasant Faithful

The local weather forecast puts wind chills at about zero. There are a handful of vehicles in the game lands parking lot; from time to time hunters make a foray to look for pheasants in the fields and woods.

The game land hasn’t been stocked since before the firearms season for deer. A couple of guys pull into the lot, with a block-headed black lab jutting its head out the truck window. The dog’s muzzle has grayed, and the big tail is practically a weapon.

They put a bell on her collar and the years fall away. She is electrified. There is no more time for pats from people like me in the parking lot. She starts out of the lot, her hunters in tow, the bell steadily tinkling.

It’s Thursday, and we are all hoping that the game lands will be stocked today. Incredibly, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has been stocking pheasants for more than 100 years. Although each group has been out for about an hour hunting, I haven’t heard any shots. That drought ends with the old black lab. It isn’t long before we are hearing shooting.

I had to see it, and what a grand old dog. Head down, oblivious to seemingly impenetrable briars, the lab was bulling through the densest areas. Most of the time the dog couldn’t be seen, with progress tracked only by the bell.

The dog and her owners are part of the pheasant faithful. Yes, we enjoy those easy hunts on the days the game lands are stocked, and for a few days afterwards, but even more we enjoy the later hunts, when the birds are wily and tough to pin. For us it’s all about the dog work and the gorgeous freedoms of roaming a beautiful game land.

People often think pheasant are native to Pennsylvania but that’s not true. The Pennsylvania Game Commission website has great information about the history of pheasants in Pennsylvania.

Pheasant History in PA

The pheasant is native to Asia. During the early 1890’s, private Pennsylvania citizens purchased pheasants from English game keepers and released them in Lehigh and Northampton Counties. For several decades many other small releases across the Commonwealth were made to establish the pheasant for sport hunting.

During the early 1900’s the Pennsylvania Game Commission set aside a special appropriation of funds to purchase and propagate game. Pheasant eggs were purchased and given to Commission refuge keepers, sportsmen’s organizations and private individuals interested in raising pheasants. The first stocking of pheasants by the Game Commission occurred by 1915; in 1929 the Commission began the propagation of pheasants on an extensive scale with the establishment of two game farms.

During the next six decades three other farms were placed into operation. Programs also were developed to provide day-old pheasant chicks to sportsmen’s organizations, 4-H clubs, farmers, and other cooperators for rearing and release on areas of public hunting. In 1959 the number of pheasant chicks distributed to cooperators reached a high of 229,685.

During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, pheasants flourished in Pennsylvania with annual harvests estimated at over a million birds. But by the mid-1970s pheasant population and harvest trends started declining.

Economic trends in agriculture intensified farming practices, herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers increased substantially in use. Since the mid-1970s, approximately 900,000 acres of farmland - much of this prime pheasant habitat - were lost to urban development.

In the early 1980’s the Commission implemented new rearing techniques designed to produce a wilder, hardier bird better prepared for survival. The game farms reduced rearing densities and provided a diversified habitat under covered fields in which free-flying pheasants are raised.

Direct contact with humans was minimized with the expectation that pheasants would learn to fend for themselves and retain their natural wariness.