The Pennsylvania Game Commission will release about 15,000 more pheasants this fall than in 2021 as interest in bird hunting grows.
The agency plans to release 237,700 pheasants statewide over nine storage intervals. The males, with the white ring on the neck, represent 173,550, or 73% of the inventory.
“The regular season releases will be pretty much the same number of birds that they had in the last few years. All three late-season populations will increase, so hunters will probably notice a difference in terms of numbers this year,” said Ian D. Gregg, chief of the Wildlife Operations Division.
Barring severe weather events or illness, the final count will be about 15,000 more birds than the previous year.
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The agency is seeing a growing interest in the sport.
In 2020, the agency sold 49,808 permits for adults and 13,247 for youth. In 2021, the agency sold 54,639 adult permits and 17,684 youth permits, both records. Adult pheasant hunting permits were required beginning in 2017, and junior hunter permits were first offered in 2018.
Adults pay $26.97 for the permit in addition to their general license. The pheasant permit is free for junior license holders ages 12-17.
Gregg said hunter surveys have revealed growing satisfaction with the pheasant hunting program.
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The nine socks include one for the youth season, five for the regular season in October and November, and three releases for the late season, in late December and early January. The first winter stocking is planned about a week earlier than in 2021, taking place the week right after rifle deer season ends.
Pheasant hunting opens to junior hunters October 8-15. The season opens for all hunters from October 22 to November 1. 12; Sunday, November 13; November 14-19; Sunday, November 20; November 21-25, December 12-23 and December 26-February. 27
Hunters are allowed two birds, either male or female, per day.
“Over 90% are stored on state playgrounds or other public lands like state parks, Army Corps of Engineers properties, places like that. We have a really small percentage that goes to private farms that are in our Hunter Access Program,” Gregg said of areas where there are a lot of hunters but not a lot of hunting land. “All pheasants are stocked in areas that are available for public hunting.”
Hunters must look for pheasants in the farm fields. Overgrown fences, tall grassy areas, and standing corn and grain fields are places to find birds.
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Small game hunting is an ideal time to introduce youngsters to the sport versus deer hunting, where a child can be challenged to stand still and still in a stall in cold weather. “Pheasant hunting, you can go out for a couple of hours, you’re walking to keep warm. There is a lot of action between working the dogs and washing the birds. There is a lot of shooting. You may not be hitting much, but that’s fine too,” Gregg said of the challenging shooting opportunities at the flying birds.
Where to hunt pheasants
The Game Commission provides stockpile information online at pgc.pa.gov to help hunters find out where birds are being released and with a three- to four-day window of when stockpiles will occur. “We don’t want to create too much crowding if we can help it,” Gregg said of not indicating the actual day the birds are released.
“We always want to emphasize the safety aspect,” he said of the challenge of taking hunters out and being courteous to others, while allowing the maximum opportunity to find pheasants. “Walking a tightrope between providing enough information to maintain relatively high catch rates without providing so much information that it degrades the quality of the hunting experience.”
Supply of pheasants for hunting.
Pheasants are not native to Pennsylvania and there really isn’t a substantial wild population. They came here from Asia. The Pennsylvania Game Commission reports that in the early 1890s, private citizens purchased pheasants from English gamekeepers and released them in Lehigh and Northampton counties. Over several decades, many other small releases were made throughout the state to establish the pheasant for sport hunting.
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The commission began its pheasant program in 1915 and today propagates them on two farms for each hunting year. The agency anticipates spending about $3.5 million this year on the pheasant program. Gregg estimates that it costs about $16 or $17 to raise a mature pheasant, which is slightly higher than last year due to rising feed and fuel costs.
Pheasant hunting is a heritage program and the birds are a grab-and-take resource similar to how the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocks trout each year.
Loyalsock Game Farm in Lycoming County and Southwest Game Farm in Armstrong County raise pheasants to repopulate Pennsylvania.
“We’ve made a lot of improvements here on the farm in the last few years, in fact, so we can have more birds to come through Pennsylvania,” said Michael Booher, superintendent of Southwest Game Farm.
The upgrades allow staff additional space to raise birds for the three releases at the end of the season.
“We want to build more pens to house more birds. We just don’t have the space early in the year,” Booher said of the young chicks. “We need the space for a better quality bird,” she said of providing ample living areas for growing birds.
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Other improvements include replacing brooding houses that are over 30 years old with fully automated buildings that will require fewer man hours to raise the birds. Gregg said the improvements will bring Southwestern Farm in line with what is used at Loyalsock Game Farm.
“The hunters want the birds. It’s more tradition than anything for a lot of people,” Booher said.
A constant concern is avian influenza, bird flu, which is produced from migratory birds. So far, with the protocols that exist, they have not found the disease on their hunting farms.
Booher said that if the birds contracted avian influenza, they would die within 48 hours. “We test our birds every Monday of every week during the planting season to make sure we don’t have any AI on the farm,” she said.
Gregg said hunters usually catch the birds within a month of being seeded, but a handful manage to survive hunting seasons.
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It is a challenge for pheasants to find significant cover to live in year-round. Birds are exposed to a variety of predators, including foxes, coyotes, and raptors.
Hunting without a dog
While many hunters use dogs to wash their birds, a dog is not a necessity.
If you don’t have a dog to wash your birds, Booher said you can still be successful. “Be persistent, but be patient. Beat the weeds because those birds will hide.”
Gregg said to stop often when walking, as that can make a bird nervous and flushed.
Be careful of your surroundings. “Watch out for the people around you, your dogs, other people’s dogs. Many people’s dogs may not be well-trained and may wander,” Booher said.
Never get in front of anyone or work too far ahead of your hunting team. If you see other hunters, work in the field away from them.
If you see a storage team where you’re hunting, Booher suggests waiting until all the birds are released and the team leaves the area.
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Gregg reminds hunters to keep the safety on their shotgun and their finger off the trigger until they are ready to shoot. “Obviously it’s an exciting opportunity and the birds get up pretty quickly, but you have more time than you think,” he said.
While it’s legal to shoot a pheasant that’s on the ground, Gregg said most birders feel that’s unethical. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you see the sky around the bird before you shoot.
Brian Whipkey is the outdoor columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at [email protected] and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter via email on your website home page with his username. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.