Why did all the wild pheasants disappear in Pennsylvania in the last 30 to 40 years? Pennsylvania Game Commission pheasant biologist Scott Klinger believes the best answer is the changes in land use. After seeing all the housing developments where we once had farm fields and brushy waste areas, I concur.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture database, the number of farms decreased by 30 percent from 1969 to 1992 in the primary pheasant range counties in the state which are defined as the southeastern counties. According to a U.S. Geological Survey’s Breeding bird survey, wild pheasant populations in Pennsylvania decreased by 98 percent from 1973 to 2012.
In addition to all of the rural housing gobbling up huntable land, perhaps the way farming is conducted these days has just as much if not more to do with the loss of the wild pheasant. Farmers start cutting hay sometimes in May, during the height of the pheasant nesting season. Even early June cuttings will doom some nests and also kill a lot of white tailed deer fawns which hide during the daytime in hayfields if they are available.
The farming of alfalfa hay increased by 45 percent while other hay lands declined by 17 percent. While alfalfa is excellent pheasant nesting cover, the frequent mowing is deadly to pheasants. Same grains, barley and wheat also provide secure nesting areas for pheasants. However the planting of small grain fields has decreased by more by 50 percent in the past 30-40 years.
The loss of hedgerows and the use of pesticides are also a major consideration not only to the loss of pheasants, but also rabbits. I talked to a local farmer who decided to stop spraying his corn fields after years of during so. He explained to me that often after spraying, he would cough up blood. He further explained that where he went to college, the agriculture program was heavily supported by chemical companies. The last time we spoke on this issue, his comment was that his cornfield did not look that great, but he still got good yields, saved money and time, and noted that all his corn fields now had lots of rabbits.
Is there any solution in sight to restore wild pheasant populations in Pennsylvania? Happily for us pheasants, the answer is YES! We will explore that topic in Part III.
Jim Collins is an outdoor writer for this newspaper. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or write to him at Outdoors With Jim Collins, 87 Windfall Road, Alba, PA 16910.