It’s in your nature: Disappearing game birds
The ring-necked pheasant was an introduction to the U.S. from Asia and at one time adapted well here. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Pennsylvania was always at the northern limit of the bobwhite’s range. Its harsh winters were a limiting factor.
As a youngster growing up in East Weissport, I was fortunate to have some old pastures and a woodlot or two to do my nature snooping. In the early ’60s, an afternoon of tromping through those fields I could flush eight or 10 ring-necked pheasants. They were always somewhere to be found. In summer I would even find a hen with her brood. That was then!
East Penn Township, the Mahoning and Big Creek Valleys all boasted breeding populations. The last time I saw any number of pheasants was over the Christmas holidays in 1971. When I graduated from college in 1975 I no longer could find a wild bird. What happened?
I don’t believe there is one factor but a number. When I was a youngster and tagged along as my dad’s “bird-dog,” the old farms he hunted had numerous fence row and hay fields that were mowed probably twice a year. (Today the alfalfa fields are cut almost monthly beginning around Memorial Day.)
Farmers, with a growing need to produce more food for our increasing populace, found better, more efficient machinery, hybrid crops, better fertilizers and very specialized herbicides.
When my father and I brushed through a harvested cornfield, the stubble, plentiful weeds and foxtails still littered the ground. Much waste grain was still available as well as plenty of “cover” for the pheasants to hide. Today the harvesters cut the stalks close to the ground and the herbicides almost eliminated all the weedy cover. We are more efficiently growing food, but less likely to support wildlife on the now almost barren soil.
The multiple cuttings of hay destroyed the pheasant nests on the ground, they found less escape cover and little, if any, waste grains. Driving through the Lehigh Valley this winter will allow you to see large farms using clean farming practices and almost no game harboring fence rows.
I’m not sure how to explain the healthy pheasant population in the Midwest farm lands. I believe that large tracks of prairie grasses remain on the edges of the irrigated farms, offering good escape cover and nearby foods. Please remember though, the ring-necked pheasant was not native to North America. It was brought here from Asia and did find suitable surroundings. Today, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is still trying to re-establish pheasant breeding areas and finding some success.
The key seems to be having grasses that remain uncut throughout the summer. The pheasants that bird hunters pursue in the Times News coverage area are those released by the game commission or other sportsmen’s clubs. Occasionally a birder may still hear a “cockbird” cackle, offering a chance to hear a once common sound heard every spring.
Bobwhites are in the same family as pheasants and were native to this country. Pennsylvania was never a stronghold for them since we are on the northern edge of their breeding range. In all my years outdoors in Carbon County I have never seen a wild bird. I even tried for two years to raise and release them and only a few survived but a few weeks after their release.
Bobwhites still hang on in some of our southeastern counties. In my many years camping on Assateague Island in Maryland, I heard the: bob, bob, white calls and saw quite a few birds. However, even the past few years I have been unable to locate them. They too need the similar habitats of the pheasants, and West Nile virus may be limiting them as well.
Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: A bobcat’s average weight is ______ pounds. A. 10, B. 20, C. 40, D. 70
Last week’s trivia answer: Black-capped chickadees, the tufted titmouse, and downy woodpecker are all year-round residents in our region.
Contact Barry Reed at email@example.com.