Sport Of Wild Pheasant Hunting Seems Just About Shot

OUTDOORS

Development, Changes In Farming Have Overwhelmed Bird's Habitat

November 10, 1991|By Bill Burton

Some say pheasant shooting is more of a sport for dogs and their handlers than for hunters.

Though ringnecks are not a particularly difficult target, I'm not convinced.

There's something about the harsh cry of a cockbird when flushed (especially as a dog stands by on point) that compensates for its somewhat diminished challenge as a target, though it is capable of a burst of speed approaching a mile a minute -- while its cruising speed is about half that.

Thus, it's with a feeling akin to nostalgia that I anticipate Friday's opening of the season. The forecast for Carroll is like that statewide. Disappointing.

Pheasants, and pheasant hunting, are slipping away. We have seen the best of the sport.

And, at the risk of being referred to as a prophet of doom, I might addwe could be witnessing the end of the sport. Maybe there will alwaysbe pheasants, but not enough wild ones to justify hunting.

Pen-reared ringnecks will remain on pay-as-you-shoot areas because they arerelatively easy to raise in captivity. But there is a big differencefrom a sporting standpoint between a bird raised from an incubator and one raised in the wild. In no way -- other than plump tender breast -- can the former match the latter.

Yet, it appears only the pen-raised bird will prevail.

Farming has changed. But blame not the farmer who must remain competitive by using his land to maximum efficiency. Much of the blame can be laid to development, which has overwhelmed too much of the remaining pheasant habitat.

Possibly, there is hope in the Sichuan pheasant imported from Asia. The Sichuan has one advantage: It doesn't nest in open fields, a habit that has much to do with what appears to be the ringneck's eventual downfall.

Thebird has shown promise in Michigan, but experiments in Pennsylvania have not fared as well.

In Michigan, where the first U.S. stockings took place, there was a 90 percent survival rate after 90 days, which is outstanding.

Maryland is watching developments closely, saidDNR wildlife scientist Peter Jayne.

Keep your fingers crossed.

Several types of Asian pheasants have been imported in the past 30 years, and each was promising at first. The green Korean bird was hailed as an answer, but subsequently flopped.

In the late 1980s, Frostburg State students Scott Smith and Nancy Stewart studied the habitat and sex ratio of pheasants in the Morgan Run area. Birds were trapped, equipped with radio collars, then released and monitored.

Results were disappointing. It was difficult to find enough birds for thestudy.

Of the birds available, there was an indication that 10 percent were victims of road kill. Predation by foxes, hawks and owls also played a role, though not a significant one, and some hens abandoned their clutches.

"We've surveyed pheasants down to almost nothing," said Jayne. "In some areas we have good habitat, but no birds. They're absent from their range."

Is there still a viable population in Maryland?

"A good question," said Jayne. "I see no positive development in the future. We've seen the heydays in Maryland."

And, no, there is no plan to restore a pheasant stocking program locally, he said. Survival rates were low, even over short periods, and suchprograms are expensive.

"It's impractical to pour more water in the bucket if there's a hole in it," Jayne said.

In some Midwesternstates, however, pheasants have made a comeback. Much of the credit goes to a Conservation Reserve Program much like the old Soil Bank, in which farmers take land out of production for long periods.

But it is questionable whether that would help in Carroll and much of Maryland's other pheasant country, because farms are smaller and the value of land much higher.

Maryland farmers question the advantages of setting aside production for long periods when agriculture markets are ever-changing. Also, there is the trend toward selling out the homestead for development.

The crux of the problem is that you don'thave pheasants unless they can hatch successfully.

Some believe abandoned nests can be attributed in part to toxic substances that affect behavior, called a sub-lethal effect.

Changes in farming techniques, especially in hay and similar fields where mowing takes place earlier, conflict with nesting in fields. The old sickle bar mower has given way to faster, more modern cutting techniques. And nesting pheasants have little chance to avoid the reaper.

Among the best areas for pheasant this year will be the Thurmont area of Frederick County and the Silver Run section of North Carroll, said Jayne.

*

For the younger set:

* Marina Evans, only 4, caught a citation 9 1/2-inch bluegill while fishing a nightcrawler at Piney Run Reservoir with her father, Brian, who checked it in at Fish Maryland Bait & Tackle, Eldersburg.

* The Carroll County Sportsmen's Association will conduct a Youth Hunter Day from 1 to 4:30 p.m. today at the Mayberry Game Protective Association facilities off Mayberry Road near Taneytown. Call Hap Baker, 374-4360.

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