With the pheasant hunting season set to begin in two weeks (Oct. 22), this popular game bird is always exciting to hunt when the startling burst of wings and cackle flies out of cover be a cornfield or brushy field. But the heyday of the majestic pheasant is limited and would be over if it wouldn’t be for pen-raised birds by the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC).
As such, perhaps this is a good time to take a look at how non-native pheasants became to be in Pennsylvania.
According to the PGC, the pheasant is native to Asia and attempts to establish them in North America date back to the 1700s. It wasn’t until 1881 in Willamette Valley of Oregon that pheasants first became established.
Back in the 1890s private Pennsylvania citizens purchased pheasants from an English game keeper and released them in Lehigh and Northampton counties. For several years later, many other small releases were made across the Commonwealth to establish the sport of pheasant hunting.
Foreseeing the hunting popularity, back in the 1990s the PGC used funds to purchase and propagate pheasant eggs that were given to PGC refuge keepers, sportsman’s clubs and private individuals interested in raising pheasants. As a result, the first stocking of pheasants by the PGC occurred by 1915. It wasn’t until 1929 when the Commission began propagating pheasants on an extensive scale on two game farms.
Over the next six decades, three other farms became operational due to the popularity of hunting this grand game bird. Programs were also established with 4-H clubs, farmers and other cooperators for rearing and releasing on areas of public hunting.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, pheasants flourished in Pennsylvania with annual harvests estimated at over a million birds. You’d frequently see them along roadways and in fields. In fact, as a kid we had one in my parents West Catasauqua backyard. My dad presumed it came from the West Catty woods about a half-mile away and adjacent to the oil tank farm and behind where Walmart now is in Whitehall.
Despite this success, by the mid 1970s, pheasant populations and harvest trends started declining. Several factors caused this such as farming practices, herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers and urban development. Approximately 900,000 acres of farmland disappeared and with it was good pheasant habitat.
To offset declining pheasant populations, not to mention hawk, great-horned owl and fox predation, the PGC began mass producing birds of lesser quality. Studies done in the 1980s showed that pen-raised pheasants didn’t survive well in the wild. So in the ‘80s, the agency implemented new rearing techniques to produce a wilder, hardier bird so they were better prepared for survival. They were then reared in diversified habitat under covered fields in which free-flying birds are raised and with little human contact so the birds could better learn to fend for themselves and retain their wariness.
The effect of this change was in the reduced number of birds raised and released from an all-time high of 425,217 pheasants in 1983 to approximately 200,000.
In the next column, we’ll list the number of birds to be released and where in time for the pheasant hunting season opener.
Nick Hromiak has been an outdoors and automotive writer for over 30 years. He's been published in numerous national and state-wide outdoor magazines and newspapers.