To most youngsters living in or near farmland in Pennsylvania today, a more likely question might be, “What the heck is a pheasant?” As with so many species in our biological communities, the ring-necked pheasant population has changed dramatically while we’ve been growing up Boomer.
When we were kids sitting in the backseat of the family sedan, the bursting forth of a ring-necked pheasant in flight from a hedge row or wheat field was a common experience. The brightly colored plumage and long tail feathers were unmistakable confirmation that it was a cock, but we also recognized the hens by their similar shapes and fast, low flight.
It was not until I was taking an Ecology class at Etown College in 1968 that I began to learn about invasive species, of which Phasianus colchicus (the ring-necked pheasant) was one. The first successful introduction of the species took place in Oregon in 1881, and biologists believe a significant portion of America’s ring-necked pheasants contain genes from the original Oregon population of 30. Unlike other introduced species like rabbits in Australia, pheasants did not create havoc in American biological communities; rather, as an article out of the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) asserts, “this Asian native has proven to be a fine member of North America’s wildlife community.”
The hedgerows and brushy areas that once characterized America’s tens of thousands of small farms served as perfect habitats for the pheasant, and if your father was a hunter in the 1950s and 1960s, you’ll remember him stocking up on shotgun shells prior to the cold fall weather, which beckoned him to his favorite farm field to pheasant hunt (with the farmer’s permission, of course). In Pennsylvania, the pheasant population peaked in the early 1970s, prior to which pheasant “harvests” averaged about 1.3 million birds per year. Now, that harvest amounts to a bit more than 100,000, and in Pennsylvania today, pheasant hunting is sustained by stocked birds. For the past twenty years, I’ve driven through Lancaster and Chester County farm fields without seeing one of these once omnipresent birds. Where have they gone? As the PGC claims …
… hay is mowed earlier and more frequently, giving hens little or no time to raise a brood. Fencerows and windbreaks have vanished. Even cornfields, always a popular hangout for pheasants, are chopped into silage leaving little cover for wildlife. In the ’70s, pheasant chicks, for the first few weeks of life, could find all the food and cover they required without leaving the hayfield they were hatched in. Now, if a hen is able to hatch her brood before the hay is cut, she and her young usually must range farther to obtain adequate food and cover, greatly increasing their exposure to predators, cars and other dangers.
Thousands of farmland acres have been lost to industrial complexes, shopping malls, suburban developments and urban sprawl. On areas still being farmed, smaller fields have been consolidated into bigger ones to accommodate larger farm equipment, causing a loss of fencerows and other areas where pheasants once found food and shelter. Changing farming practices also include an increased use of pesticides and herbicides, which kill the insects and weedy cover vital to pheasants.
An article in The Hutchinson News summarizes what Randy Rodgers of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) has shared as to why the pheasant population has declined in Kansas, and what Rodgers has shared also explains the declines in Pennsylvania …
… we started using more herbicides, we intensified crop rotations and we adopted use of higher yielding shorter wheat varieties … pheasants had been able to nest successfully in green wheat in the spring. Then broadleaf weed growth in the post-harvest wheat stubble provided pheasant chicks with an abundant supply of insects that are essential for the first two months of life. The weed canopy also provided protection from the elements and from predators. That protection carried them well into the next spring when they’d move back into the new wheat on nearby fields to start the cycle all over again. But today, we want no weed growth. We now grow grain sorghum or corn instead of fallow. Farming is an intensively competitive industry. And from the business point of view, you have no choice but to be as good as you can be. Good for the pocket book. Bad for the wildlife.
One of KDWP’s wildlife biologists, Kevin Luman, is quoted in the Hutchinson News’ report as claiming the pheasants are still out there and could come back, “But they need habitat for that to happen, and that means we need a lot more outdoor diversity including such things as more wild flowers, pollinators and cover crops. We also need to do some other things like raise up combine heads when harvesting wheat … We’d probably be better off financially if all of our fields were flat Harney silt loam soils. But now when you drive past all of those perfectly flat fields with perfect weed control, you’re starting to wonder if maybe there’s something missing.”
And so goes the history of Homo sapiens, one of the most deadly species known to have lived on earth, the species whose self-serving activities are significantly responsible (according to some authorities) for the Qauternary extinction event. Since the ring-necked pheasant is an introduced species, its disappearance in North America would not constitute the extinction of a species in its original habitat; however, the deleterious human activities that impact pheasants also impact the existence of native birds like quail, grouse, ptarmigan, and prairie chickens. Despite we Boomers et al having been smacked in the face in 1968 by the Ehrlichs’ Population Bomb, the vast majority of those of us with the power and influence to do something have done virtually nothing about a half-century of the deadly increase in our species’ population, which has caused the environmental changes that have impacted the ring-necked pheasant population. Because of our societal disinterest in natural laws like ecological Carrying Capacity, in the not so distant future, the last Boomer blogger on earth, a 103-year-old Klallam woman living on the Olympic Peninsula, will, with her last breath, submit her last post: Where are the humans?
(A Note: In researching this post, I discovered that Nimrod was a personality described in Genesis as a mighty hunter and a king, which is why “nimrod” is used in literature as a synonym for hunter, something that is majestically ironic given that the slang definition of “nimrod” is idiot or moron; the origin of this usage is said to be Bugs Bunny’s derogatory characterization of Elmer Fudd, the oft-befuddled hunter whose voice was the stereotype for what speech pathologists refer to as de-rhoticism (Fudd: “You wascally wabbit!”). Feel free to add the content of this last paragraph to your personal Compendium of Useless Facts and Knowledge!)
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(Featured image is credited to Ron Gripond, Pictures of Scotland, from Pixabay; Pheasant Hen image credited to Marlene Cashen; copyright infringement is not intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the images.)