With the opening of the rabbit and pheasant seasons yesterday, small-game hunting is now fully underway throughout Pennsylvania.
As I've often noted in recent years, however, participation in small-game hunting has declined drastically in recent years. Expanded opportunities and interest in archery hunting have probably contributed to that decline somewhat as quite a few hunters have shifted their focus to deer rather than small game early in the fall. But declining numbers of rabbits and wild pheasants over the past several decades undoubtedly contributed more than any other factor to a waning interest in small-game hunting. That is truly unfortunate because small game, especially pheasants, used to attract many hunters afield each autumn.
Ring-necked pheasants aren't native to North America and were first introduced on this continent from China back in the 1880s. Pennsylvania began stocking pheasants in 1915 when about 1,000 birds were released in the central and southern areas of the state.
Back then, some wildlife managers surmised that pheasants would not be able to survive in the wild, relegating them to a put-and-take status as a game bird. Those Asian imports, however, found the vast farmlands of southeast and south-central Pennsylvania to their liking and eventually established flourishing populations throughout those regions. To provide even more pheasant-hunting opportunities to hunters outside the range of wild pheasants, the Game Commission began raising and stocking hundreds of thousands of birds each fall.
By the late 1960s, some game biologists were already predicting the decline of wild pheasants in Pennsylvania due mainly to a loss of farmland habitat and changing farming practices. Unfortunately, those predictions were all too true as the pheasant population in Pennsylvania peaked around 1970 when the estimated harvest was about 1.3 million birds. By 1977, the pheasant harvest had already declined to 836,000 birds. In an attempt to make up for the rapidly decreasing numbers of wild ringnecks, the Game Commission continued to increase the number of pheasants stocked during the 1970s and early 1980s.
For a few years, those increased stockings did bolster the annual pheasant harvest. Hunters bagged an estimated 900,000 birds in 1980 after 280,000 birds were stocked that fall. It soon became apparent that increased stocking could not make up for the loss of wild pheasants. More than 425,000 birds were stocked in 1982, yet the annual harvest was down to 725,000 pheasants. In 1985, the harvest dropped to around 500,000 after more than 230,000 birds had been released. Sadly, numbers of wild ringnecks continued to plummet, and by the early 1990s, wild pheasants were all but a memory from the hunting standpoint throughout most of Pennsylvania.
I consider myself fortunate to have experienced the opportunity to hunt wild pheasants in southeastern Pennsylvania back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even though the resource was in decline at that time, we still had some amazing days chasing those birds. I can only imagine what it must have been like during the pheasant heyday of the 1950s and 1960s.
For the past 25 years or so, most of us who enjoy pheasant hunting have had to adjust to pursuing stocked birds, either on a shooting preserve or by hoping to find some of the ringnecks the Game Commission still releases each fall. Until 2005, the agency had been stocking around 200,000 pheasants a year. Faced with budget constraints, the agency cut the number of pheasants it raised in half to 100,000 birds each year. Last year, that total was decreased further due to significant losses of birds caused by flooding at some state game farms.
The good news for this hunting season is the Game Commission plans to stock 200,000 pheasants again. This return to the pre-2005 production levels was made possible by increased revenues from Marcellus Shale gas leases on certain state game lands, according to Game Commission executive director, Carl Roe.
Doubling the amount of birds will allow more in-season stockings and releasing birds in more locations than in the recent past. Both of those factors will help to spread out hunting pressure and enhance the quality of the hunting experience for all, not to mention the opportunity for more hunters to enjoy the special thrill of bagging a few of these long-tailed birds.