Cocks Only

The upland bird hunting season opened Saturday and shotgun reports could be heard throughout the valley on a bright, crisp, colorful autumn day.

For what it’s worth, personal observation points to a down year for ruffed grouse. That early assessment is subject to change as the young season progresses, but after brief fruitless visits to a few coverts that have consistently produced rapid-fire grouse flushes over the years, the cyclical partridge population appears to be down this year, perhaps the result of a wet nesting season.

As for woodcock, I have seen one thus far, a resident, which would seem to indicate that the flight birds are probably just north of here. We should be seeing them soon, especially if the snow starts falling, the ground freezing in the northern mountains.

Which brings us to pheasants, ring-necked pheasants, which have evolved strictly into a put-and-take game bird over the past couple of decades. The Connecticut Valley, with its fertile soil and expansive croplands, once provided the best habitat in the state for a semi-self-sustaining population of ring-necks. In the bottomland towns like Hadley, Hatfield, Sunderland, Deerfield and others, springtime pheasant families feeding in the backyard were a common sight.

I can clearly recall pheasant broods feeding under the cherry tree at my family’s Pleasant St. home in South Deerfield as a kid. There’d be a cock bird or two, a couple of hens and many chicks — a wonderful sight to behold on a bright spring morning. Back then, the current Frontier football field was a marshy poplar stand, the tennis courts an overgrown goldenrod field, the Deerfield Elementary School lot and parking lot across the street cornfields. Yes, the landscape has changed — in my old backyard and throughout the Pioneer Valley.

Until about 20 years ago, pheasant hunters willingly accepted the cocks-only rule as a way of protecting the “wild-pheasant” population, which, to be sure, could not stand on its own but did quite well with the help of the state and private game clubs that supplemented the region with annual fall stocking for the hunting season. As a bonus, the state pheasant farms at Wilbraham, Ayer and Sandwich unloaded an annual summer allotment of broodstock hens, which provided surviving cocks mates.

I can remember when the state, in a cost-cutting measure, decided to make hens fair game to hunters in the 80s and conservative cocks-only hunters objected vociferously. Frankly, old habits die hard, and veteran pheasant hunters had no desire to shoot hens. But their objections fell on deaf ears and the cocks-only rule became history primarily to cut the state’s annual pheasant budget by at least half. Remember, to produce 50,000 cocks for hunters, the state had to hatch, feed and care for at least 100,000 birds annually. That’s why hens became fair game, not because habitats were disappearing.

I can still remember talking to then MassWildlife biologist Bill Pollack about the controversial abandonment of the cocks-only rule. An avid bird hunter who loved the valley from his undergraduate days at UMass/Amherst, Pollack reluctantly tried to justified the move. “It’s the development,” he said. “I can’t even recognize the big, beautiful Amherst/Hadley coverts I used to hunt anymore. It’s a shame, but they’ve vanished.”

He was right. The valley landscape had changed dramatically from his days at UMass in the 50s, and much more of that prime habitat has been wiped out since we spoke two decades ago. Not only that but there are many more predators now patrolling the coverts for game birds and small game — efficient hunters like fox, coyotes and bobcats, not to mention birds of prey.

But something tells me we should be doing more to promote a reproductive pheasant population. In my travels I frequently speak to farmers who still find pheasant broods in their asparagus fields and vegetable gardens. There’d be many more if hens were still protected.

I know it’ll never happen, but if it did, the hunting would improve. Then there’d be pheasants where they’re stocked and where they aren’t. Never a bad thing for hunters.

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