When Kevin Lines started work at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 40 years ago, he raised pheasant chicks to dole out to 4H, FFA, and sportsmen’s groups in exchange for their work on pheasant habitat work.
“For every type of project they could get so many day-old pheasant chicks to keep and raise and release in their project areas,” says Lines, now the DNR’s Pheasant Action Plan coordinator.
The pheasant giveaway was a great success in encouraging community projects. It was not successful in increasing pheasant numbers.
“There’s literally no information out there that says by using game farm birds you can stock and build a wild population,” says Lines. “They don’t last long.”
What Lines is saying is old news to wildlife professionals and common knowledge among a lot of conservationists and modern-day sportsmen. But wildlife officials still hear demands to build struggling pheasant numbers by “stocking more birds.”
“All the time,” says Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. Even in the number one pheasant state in the country, where wild birds number in the millions even in poor years, “there are certain folks that if their bird numbers are struggling, they will release birds,” says Runia. “We know it really doesn’t contribute much, but it does happen.”
Two studies that compared the survival of pen-raised stocked birds to wild birds illustrate just how futile pheasant stocking can be.
In a study by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, researchers released banded and radio-collared wild birds (trapped elsewhere) and pen-raised birds in two areas in southern Idaho where wild bird numbers were low. The scientists also tested the effectiveness of trapping and removing magpies, skunks, coyotes, mink and other predators from the areas.
In a paper published in Wildlife Biology in 2009, the Idaho scientists reported that “wild female pheasants were seven times more likely to survive translocation to Oct. 1, 10 times more likely to survive to the nesting season, [and] eight times more productive.” Predator control aided survival of wild roosters released, but didn’t seem to help either wild or pen-raised hens. According to the study, “Low survival, poor productivity, and higher costs of spring¬-released pen-¬reared female pheasants strongly suggest that this is an inappropriate management tool for increasing pheasant numbers.”
A South Dakota study published a decade earlier in The Journal of Wildlife Management showed similar results. Anthony Leif of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks radio-collared and released 44 wild hens and 159 pen-raised hens in two areas in eastern South Dakota. While most wild hens survived through the study period, the pen-raised hens were easy pickings for predators. Additionally, the wild hens were ten times as successful at raising broods. Leif concluded, “Because of low survival and reproductive rates, pen-reared hens should not be released in habitats containing wild pheasants.”
None of that is news to Runia.
“Same information I’m going to share with you here. If you follow 100 wild hens through the nesting and brooding season, you’d expect them to raise about 30 broods. And if you released 100 hens—pen-raised birds—in the spring, you’d expect to get three broods. That’s the major take-home message from that study,” says Runia.
“Just think about a bird that’s lived in a cage and been given food, water and protection from predators,” he says. “They really don’t have that innate fear of predators like a wild bird would have. Then, you think about a bird that was raised in the wild—they have to be constantly on the lookout for predators, or they’re dead.”
For that reason, South Dakota—like most states with abundant wild pheasants—doesn’t stock birds, even in poor years. Runia states, “We’re certainly going to concentrate on efforts to increase habitat, which is proven to produce pheasants.”
Does it ever make sense to stock pheasants?
Bird stocking does support successful hunting programs where wild birds don’t live. “Without it [stocking], you’d be looking at all the New England states not having a program at all,” says Laurie Fortin, coordinator of pheasant hunting program for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Connecticut is a perfect example, stocking birds to hunt since the 1880s. The state currently releases about 15,000 birds a year in small public areas managed for grassland species. Birds are usually dropped off only one or two days before hunting begins.
“We try to do it as close to opening day as possible because predation is always a factor,” says Fortin. “Birds moving off the area is always a factor. The sooner we can put them out prior to opening day, the better.” About 5,000 hunters put down $28 for a special stamp to hunt. They manage to find and shoot perhaps half of the birds that are stocked. Birds cost about $13 apiece.
But even a successful program of put-and-take hunting proves the rule that stocking can’t build wild pheasant populations. In Connecticut, which has no wild pheasants, none of the stocked birds have ever survived long enough to start a wild population—or even to provide a meaningful contribution to hunting the next year.
“On very rare occasions someone might see a breeding bird with chicks—very rare,” says Fortin. “By the next fall, there’s literally not a single bird left.”
Story by Greg Breining
Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources