Last winter Colleen DeLong was surprised to see 80 wild pheasants flushed from a 55-acre field of switchgrass in the Turbotville area of Northumberland County.
But what came out of the field as crews conducted a survey on Feb. 17 left her astonished.
Volunteers flushed 173 wild pheasants from the field, which is located in one of four Wild Pheasant Recovery Areas in the state. Beginning in 2007, pheasants from Montana and South Dakota were trapped and released into the WPRAs in an effort to establish sustainable wild pheasant populations in suitable habitat. The program is overseen by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Pheasants Forever.
The last time wild pheasants were released in the 55-acre field in Turbotville, which is part of the Central Susquehanna WPRA, was 2008, said DeLong, who is a wildlife biologist with the PGC. Considering wild pheasants have a life span of one to two years, the birds that were flushed this winter are evidence that the population is reproducing and expanding.
“That’s the most we’ve seen out of a field,” DeLong said. “The wild pheasants we brought into Pennsylvania are surviving and reproducing in areas with good habitat.
“The fact that for six years there’s been no wild pheasants released in this area, and now we have this many is impressive.”
The 55-acre field isn’t the only site in the Turbotville area yielding decent numbers of wild pheasants. Last Sunday all seven study sites turned up wild birds, and more surveys are scheduled to take place on other areas today.
While the numbers are proof that the WPRA program is working, DeLong is actually more concerned with another finding – the ratio of males to females. That figure, she said, will determine when populations are at the point where hunting can be allowed.
“The sex ratio is 1:1 which is good. We don’t want to see more roosters than hens,” DeLong said. “In the sustainable populations out west you can hunt a lot of the roosters without harming the population.”
So how close is are we to seeing a hunting season for wild pheasants in the WPRAs?
Perhaps within the next two years, according to PGC commission Jay Delaney, who said it’s imperative to protect the hens when hunting is finally allowed in a WPRA.
“There’s so many ways it could be done – roosters only, shorter seasons, a one-bird limit. It’s something that the board will have to come to a consensus on,” he said.
The WPRA program is guided by the agency’s Pheasant Management Plan, which calls for three years of wild pheasant releases (beginning in 2007) followed by three years of monitoring, which was scheduled to end in 2012. DeLong said a one-year extension was granted by the board so more data could be collected on the habitat surrounding the areas with high population densities.
“We’re finding the populations are clustered and what we need to do is re-create those habitat combinations in other areas so the populations expand,” DeLong said. “Pheasants Forever and the agency are working hard to establish more habitat, and with the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program re-opening, we’re hoping more landowners will enroll.”
One of the main goals of the WPRA program is to establish populations with a minimum of 10 hens per square mile. In Turbotville that figure is 18, and on the 55-acre field that was surveyed last Sunday DeLong said there are 47 hens per square mile.
The 10 hens per square mile goal is based on the low end of the numbers seen in the second class wild pheasant range in the 1970’s, when populations were more plentiful. Back then, densities of wild pheasant hens per square mile ranged from 10 to 39 in second class habitats and 40 to 120 in areas with exceptional habitat.
While the flushing surveys are conducted in the winter, crews will hit the WPRAs again this spring to conduct crowing counts to obtain an estimate of the number of roosters.
While DeLong said there are no official surveys to count broods of pheasant chicks in the summer, she does monitor those numbers as well.
“Most of the brood data comes from landowners, farmers and anyone who sees pheasant chicks in the area,” DeLong said. “We’re seeing average brood sizes of five chicks, and even higher.”
With plenty of evidence that wild birds are surviving, reproducing and increasing in Pennsylvania, DeLong believes it won’t be long until hunters can relive the hey-day of wild pheasant hunting that was common decades ago.
She just hopes that hunters remain patient.
“We’re doing it. It’s happening,” DeLong said. “I can understand why people are frustrated because pheasants disappeared and have been gone for so long now. The big question is how long are people comfortable waiting to get a healthy, sustainable population of wild pheasants again?
Delaney, who is an avid pheasant hunter, said in his opinion it won’t be too much longer.
“The WPRA has been a success, and I hope the agency has a package to present to the board within the next two years,” he said.