Pheasant season opens on discouraging note

Bill Burton HC

November 15, 1991|By Bill Burton

Sadly, much of the excitement is gone. Today, as the Maryland pheasant season opens, the outlook is worse than ever.

The fellow who gets his bag of two will be lucky indeed; even one is asking a lot. That's how much ringneck shooting has plummeted the past 20 years.

The outlook is better for rabbit hunting that also opened today, but there are ominous signals for quail shooters as they also go afield today. Can quail be next?

In recent years, bobwhite hunting success tracks like that of pheasants 15 years ago. Woodcock, pheasants and quail; inland wing shooting is on the way down. Only the ruffed grouse appears to be holding its own though its abundance is cyclical.

Thankfully, good grouse years outnumber the bad ones, undoubtedly because they are birds of the forest. Quail and pheasants are birds of the farmlands.

And times are changing on the farm. Gone are most hedgerows, brush piles and uncultivated weedbeds so much needed by both species. Farming has become exceptionally competitive, every available acre must be put into production -- and not of gamebirds.

It's called clean, efficient farming. But blame not the farmer. Farming is a business. And look at the alternative. When farm income drops, the temptation to sell out increases -- and often the buyers are developers. A pheasant can find more cover and food on a clean farm than in a back yard of a housing development.

Also, chances for survival are probably better in dodging a hay mower on a farm than autos in congested areas, though the cutting of hay crops earlier than ever in spring is among the biggest problems facing pheasants. Call it the grim reaper syndrome.

Not only is the harvest earlier to conflict more with the nesting of hens, the old, slow mowers have given way to faster equipment. Birds attending their clutches have little time to get out of the path -- and if they do succeed, they have sparse cover remaining, which increases predator mortality.

That's just the beginning. There is what wildlife scientists call "sub-lethal effect." Speculation increases that more pheasants are abandoning their nests, which might be attributed in part to toxic substances on fields. This could affect normal behavior, said Peter Jayne, who heads upland game projects for the Department of Natural Resources.

A return to stocking -- which was discontinued in Maryland a dozen years ago or more -- is not among considerations. It's very expensive, and the life span of incubator released birds is very short. Only the rare one contributes to long-term population gains.

You might say pheasant stocking is providing cannon fodder. Jayne likens it to pouring water in a bucket filled with holes.

Jayne concedes there is nothing encouraging in the long-term outlook for pheasants. In other words, we're watching a great sport winding down. To nothing?

Pheasants have made somewhat of a comeback in midwestern states, but that is credited to the Conservation Reserve Program, which is something like the old Soil Bank Program. But, most Maryland farms are too small to get involved in taking land out of long-term production for payments far less than what crops are worth in good years.

Several years ago, a pheasant study in the Morgan Run sector of Carroll County was handicapped from the beginning because only about a dozen birds could be caught for radio monitoring. The sparse results indicated 10 percent mortality on the highway, with predators also playing a role -- and there was the problem of hens abandoning their clutches.

The Sichuan pheasant might help out. This bird originally imported to Michigan with some success is being tried in Pennsylvania, but so far hasn't met expectations there. But we're watching developments closely, said Jayne.

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