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Group wants 'Pheasants Forever' in Pa.

September 27, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

MERCERSBURG, Pa. -- Brian Brake remembers a time when the distinctive alarm-like croaking call of the ring-necked pheasant could be heard in the woods throughout Franklin County.

Today, there is silence.

Brake, of Mercersburg, said the pheasant population reached 2 million statewide in the 1970s. By the 1980s, local hunters and conservationists saw the birds' numbers start to dwindle. Today, the pheasant population in Franklin County is zero.

The reason is not overhunting, but rather that there are no areas left for nesting.

"It's really about their loss of secure nesting cover," Brake said.

To help reintroduce the bird to the county, Brake joined Pheasants Forever, a national organization dedicated to the conservation of pheasants and other grassland birds such as the native bobwhite quail, which also started to slowly disappear nearly a decade before the pheasants.

Pheasants Forever is linked to its sister group, Quails Forever, because of the birds' similar nesting practices.

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"Pheasants Forever's mantra is build a habitat and the wildlife will respond," Brake said.

Brake has been the habitat chairman of the Cumberland Valley Chapter since 1993. The group's mission, he said, is to help bring back the birds through habitat improvements, public awareness and land-management policies.

The decline



Ring-necked pheasants were introduced to the United States from China in the 1880s. The birds, by all accounts, seemed to flourish in their new home. The Pennsylvania Game Commission reports that in the early 1970s, the state had the highest pheasant densities in the nation.

Pheasants, along with quail and the Eastern Meadowlark, are ground-nesting birds. While songbirds, for instance, nest in trees, pheasants and similar birds make their nests in tall grasses to camouflage them from natural predators such as foxes, owls, raccoons and skunks.

Brake said pheasants need ground cover for nesting from April 1 to July 15. Roosters and hens mate in the spring. A hen can lay up to more than a dozen eggs and sometimes produces a second clutch if the first one fails.

But Brake, who is a crop and beef farmer, knows that May is also peak harvest time for mowing hay. And residential homeowners tend to keep grasses short in the late spring and early summer months.

High grass, though, isn't just a healthy habitat for pheasants, Brake said.

"If the pheasants return, you'll also see songbirds, hummingbirds, nesting ducks and quail," he said.

During the 1960s and through the 1970s, pheasant populations were at an all-time high in the state. Brake points to the Soil Bank and Feed Grain programs, which allowed farmers to keep more than half a million acres of farm land idle in Pennsylvania. During that time, pheasants had the perfect ground cover for nesting and raising their young broods.

By the mid-1970s, both programs were stopped and farmland was put back into agricultural production. That's when the pheasant population began to decline. According to its Web site, the Pennsylvania Game Commission names an "increased pesticide use, row crop acreage, earlier hay mowing, drainage of wetlands, the elimination of hedgerows on agricultural lands and increasing urban sprawl" for the decline of the birds.

Reintroduction



In the early 1980s, Pennsylvania tried to reintroduce pheasants with stock birds. They found 70 percent of the wild birds survived, compared to only 14 percent of those who were pen-raised. However, the state continued to reintroduce the pen-raised birds and continued to see a decline.

"Apparently, they don't have that natural instinct," Brake said.

South Dakota, whose state bird is the ring-necked pheasant, has allowed the capture of wild pheasants to be reintroduced to other parts of the United States, including Pennsylvania.

According to a draft of the Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources' Ring-Necked Pheasant Management Plan for the state, in order to maintain a healthy pheasant population, the birds need a minimum of 15,000 agricultural acres.

Ideally, the DNR reports, ring-necked pheasants thrive in an area that is 70 percent cropland, and 30 percent brush and marsh. Of that, less than 15 percent is considered woodland.

Brake said that in order to have a viable population for hunting, those blocks must string together for 100,000 acres. And pheasants stay within two miles of their nesting area.

One way to reintroduce the birds is through the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP. The program is a voluntary land-retirement program with a mission to protect land from water erosion and safeguard ground, surface water and wildlife.

The future



The Cumberland Valley Chapter of Pheasants Forever, whose male and female members range in age from elementary school to retirement, has planted several thousand acres of conservation cover throughout Franklin County. The idea, Brake said, is to create and improve the habitat, water quality and sediment control.

The group also promotes habitat planting and food plots on local game lands. The chapter's current project is a one-mile section of Church Hill Run, which is a native trout stream. Brake said it's just the first step.

He said the group is focusing on getting the right cover for the birds. The hope is to trap and transfer the wild birds to a place where the birds will be monitored for three years.

A decision will be made after six years on whether to allow the pheasants to be hunted.

"They will be monitored carefully," Brake said.




For more information about Pheasants Forever, go to www.cumberlandvalley.pheasantsforever.org.

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