BEAR CREEK TWP. - Ross Piazza had one thought as he watched the 28 pheasant chicks fly out of a rearing pen into the expansive fields and undergrowth near Francis Walter Dam.
He hopes they come back.
Piazza, who formed the conservation group Pheasants Afield, believes the game birds can be imprinted to the location in which they’re raised. If true, Piazza said pen-raised pheasants can be released into areas with suitable habitat and stay there, as long as that’s where the birds grew up.
That way, he said, pen-raised pheasants can be imprinted to stay in areas with suitable habitat and afford more opportunities for hunters and, possibly, establish their own populations in such areas.
The approach is similar to the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Wild Pheasant Recovery Areas, except Piazza is focusing on places with smaller pockets of pheasant habitat instead of the wide expanses of grasslands that can hold hundreds of wild birds.
“Down in places like Washingtonville, you have thousands of acres of grass. Here, we don’t,” Piazza said. “We want to get something in the areas where you may have several hundred acres, but pheasants can still survive and nest on their own.”
Piazza has studied the imprinting theory for three years and has conducted field tests using a Surrogator — a self-contained unit used to raise pheasant chicks with minimal human interaction. Piazza said the Surrogator, which is manufactured by Wildlife Management Technologies, is placed in an area with suitable pheasant habitat and the birds are put inside with they are a day old, then released in four to five weeks. The unit has an automatic watering system, feeders and a heat source so the pheasant chicks can grow without being accustomed to humans.
And they also become imprinted to the area where the Surrogator is placed, which Piazza said is the key.
“Imprinting to a place. The first four to five weeks of their lives are when the birds will imprint to the place they live,” Piazza said. “Our hope is that when these birds are flushed into areas away from here without good habitat, they’ll come back.”
The Surrogator is checked daily by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff from the dam to make sure the birds have adequate food, water and heat. The daily check is brief, Piazza said, and the birds aren’t handled. The unit was placed on Corps property across from the entrance to the dam, which is also open to public hunting.
The first year birds were released from the Surrogator, Piazza said they had to travel across an open field to find water, making them susceptible to predation. That was two years ago, and Piazza said none of the pheasants could be located in the weeks following their release, but none were found dead either.
“We don’t know what happened to them but it’s encouraging that we didn’t find any dead ones,” he said.
This year, the Surrogator was moved to a different location with a nearby water source, and the 28 pheasants that were released Monday will be monitored by Pheasants Afield members and Corps staff from the dam working in the area. Another batch of day-old pheasant chicks will be raised in the Surrogator this summer and they will be fitted with leg bands with a phone number to call.
Still, Piazza admitted there is only one sure-fire way to find out if the pheasants are staying near the place where they were released.
“The only way we’ll really get a handle on it is through telemetry,” he said.
The cost for telemetry equipment and transmitters for 10 birds is between $3,000 and $4,000, according to Piazza, and Pheasants Afield is applying for its non-profit status so it can seek grant money for the study.
“Pen-raised birds don’t survive or nest well, but there haven’t been a lot of studies on imprinting to a place,” Piazza said. “When birds are released during hunting season, they’re pressured immediately and will fly 300 to 400 yards when flushed. They have no reason to come back, unless they are imprinted to a certain area.
“Keeping the birds in suitable habitat is the key.”