When you work in the conservation field you frequently get asked questions about animals and the outdoors. Some are great questions about how to improve wildlife habitat and water quality and some are questions like, "Can I eat this fungus growing on the side of my house." Whatever the question may be I give an answer to the best of my knowledge. Over the past few years one question has dominated over all others, "What can we do to get the pheasant population back up?" It's great that people are concerned about pheasant numbers; I'm sure they have great memories just like I do of growing up hunting ringnecks with their family, or friends, and they want to be able to share those same kind of memories with their own kids. But honestly I've grown tired of answering the question and seeing the doubt in peoples' eyes knowing that they didn't believe a word I said. It seems so many have their own solution predetermined in their minds, whether it's removing predators, transporting wild birds, or stocking. The hard truth is without some pretty major changes, pheasants have a rough road ahead of them.
One of the most common suggestions for boosting the pheasant population is stocking. Stocking is basically taking pen raised birds and releasing them into the wild. IT DOESN'T WORK! Even Pheasants Forever does not support stocking in most cases. Think about that, if an organization devoted to keeping pheasants around says it doesn't work then it probably doesn't work. Enough studies have taken place involving every form of stocking under the sun and it simply doesn't work. There is the argument that we wouldn't have pheasants if it wasn't for stocking. This is true, but compare our landscape then to now. Stocking pheasants took place over a long period of time under near perfect habitat conditions. Farmers grew oats and hay and there were actually a few weeds in the crop fields, not just bare dirt.
Predators are always the first to blame when people talk about saving pheasants. Predators do have a significant impact on pheasant population, but often times the wrong predators take most of the heat for it. Red tailed hawks and coyotes always seem to be the first ones brought up. Poor coyotes who hunt for predominately small mammals like rabbits and rodents get blamed the most, followed by hawks who along with owls and crows account for less than 10% of the deprecated adults and nests. Animals who are often over looked like raccoons and striped skunks are more to blame due to their ability to wipe out an entire nest in a matter of minutes. In fact the territorial nature of coyotes can keep the other more destructive predator's population in check. When you think about it logically, we have the lowest pheasant population in history, but we still have the predators, so their impact is going to be greater. Predators will always be here so why waste your time dwelling on how many pheasants a hawk or fox kills in a year and instead let's get down to the real root of the problem.
There are two main reasons why we have no pheasants. One, we have no control over and the other we do. One main reason is the weather and unfortunately we were slammed with several bad winters in a row, followed by extremely wet springs. Bad weather isn't just hard on pheasants, it's hard on all wildlife and bad weather forces predators to work that much harder to survive as well. Unfortunately pheasants come up on the losing end of that competition every time. We can't control the weather, but we can control habitat. Plain and simple habitat is the number one reason why our population is down. They have less nesting cover than ever and less winter protection than ever. Any marginal ground that used to be in the CRP program has been pulled and farmed. There are less and less fence rows, every water way is mowed, and people are mowing road ditches that are nowhere near a house on a monthly basis. Why? So the corn looks taller? How do you expect a species to survive when you take away the only place they have to live and what few places are left make for a very easy target for predators. Habitat is our only hope - not stocking, not killing every hawk and coyote you see - just habitat.