Wild Pheasants Making a Comeback in Pennsylvania
There are no wild pheasants in Pennsylvania! That’s what we have heard for many years. Fortunately this is no longer true. The Pennsylvania Game Commission and Pheasants Forever partnered to release wild birds from western states into Pennsylvania farmland beginning in 2005. Now there are wild pheasants established in four Wild Pheasant Recovery Areas (WPRAs). Because the western birds survived and reproduced, we now have “Pennsylvania-born” wild pheasants in all WPRAs. Although we cannot realistically expect WPRA populations to reach the levels many pheasant hunters remember from the 1970s, the Game Commission is working toward once again providing the opportunity (at least on a limited basis) for a wild pheasant hunting experience — one of the main goals of the WPRA program. It is also important to note that WPRAs are about more than just pheasants. They provide a mix of habitats and wildlife species that are missing from most of the rest of Pennsylvania’s 21st century landscape. More information about the WPRAs, including maps, can be found on the Game Commission website.
Wild Pheasant Recovery Area Population
Understanding how the wild pheasants are doing requires us to look at more than just numbers of birds. The wild pheasants have survived and in some study areas have increased their numbers, but have not yet dispersed far from the farms where they were released. Thus, the populations are highly clustered in the areas with the best habitat. Pheasants, like most upland game birds, do not travel widely. They spend most of their time walking on the ground not flying. So, if they have everything they need in one place, they will stay there. Our goal is to provide more habitat nearby so that they can disperse further.
Areas do exist in the current WPRAs that can hold a significant amount of pheasants. The best areas are smaller and more spread out than those that existed in Pennsylvania’s pheasant hunting heyday, but wild populations have been established! There are also areas where there are no pheasants. This should come as no surprise as there will always be areas within a farmland landscape where there is no suitable habitat and wildlife will not be found there.
Habitat is the Key
Habitat is the key for wild pheasant survival, dispersal, and reproduction. Pheasants are farmland birds and need undisturbed grass fields mixed with cropland for nesting and winter habitat. They nest on the ground in grass fields such as mixed hay, alfalfa, switchgrass, and native grass mixes, which are planted by farmers enrolled in conservation programs. Pheasants also use switchgrass, shrubland and evergreens for winter cover.
Many other farmland species are found in the same habitat wild pheasants use, including barn owls, meadowlarks, bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, bluebirds, northern harriers, short eared owls, rough-legged hawks, cottontail rabbits, deer, fox, and coyotes. Many of the bird species that use pheasant habitat are declining, rare, threatened and even endangered. The more we can do to keep grassland habitat on the ground, the better it is for wildlife diversity.
Decline in Grassland Habitat
Unfortunately, this type of habitat is one of the quickest declining on Pennsylvania’s landscape. Even within WPRAs, grassland acreage has declined over the past several years, threatening the sustainability of the wild pheasant populations that currently exist there.
Maintaining pheasant habitat on Pennsylvania’s farmland will always require a long-term commitment. We’re thankful for the farmers and farmland owners who help us to establish wild pheasants by providing habitat on their land. Their indispensable contribution is important for wild pheasants’ survival. Without them, this would not be possible. One of the reasons farmers can afford to provide wildlife habitat on their land is because of habitat programs that provide technical and financial assistance.
Help for Landowners to Create Habitat
There are now additional personnel and funds available to help you create habitat on your farmland. The Game Commission and Pheasants Forever work with many other agencies and conservation groups to provide habitat assistance to farmland owners. There are people available to help with grass plantings and more. Funding for planting expenses, maintenance, personnel and equipment to do the work are also available. Habitat work is taking place now in the WPRAs and surrounding counties.
Farmland owners interested in helping provide habitat for wild pheasants and farmland wildlife can contact the Game Commission’s Pheasants Forever partner, Kurt Bond, at 570-490-0199 for more information.
Colleen DeLong, Wildlife Biologist, and Brandon Black, Biologist Aide
Pennsylvania Game Commission