Pheasant Fever

Cornfields have mellowed from green to tan, swamps are brightened by yellows and purples, acorns and apples are underfoot, a few still clicking and clacking through leaves and limbs, and those long, brown, white-pine needles are piling up fast to collect for blueberry-patch mulch — all unmistakable signs that pheasant season is upon us.

Yes, it’s true. Saturday is opening day of the annual six-week season that lures sportsmen and sportswomen into dense, thorny Bay State coverts seldom visited when game birds are not fair game. So, many birds have by now been stocked and your favorite fields are ripe for preseason flushing maneuvers, always a good way to scatter unsuspecting opening-day birds for the first waves of aggressive hunters.

Talk to the old-timers 80 or better and they’ll describe a Connecticut Valley scene we no longer recognize, with much more open cropland and bordering wetlands and fewer bottomland wood lots. Those were the days, they say, when it was common to see spring pheasant broods walking behind a hen or two through the backyard, or maybe picking through freshly harrowed cornfields for leftover fall kernels.

“You probably don’t remember the Amherst and Hadley I recall hunting as a UMass student around 1950,” long-ago retired, late state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (DFW) biologist Bill Pollack was fond of saying way back when he was sharing his Westboro office with the likes of legendary late deer biologist Jim McDonough and a young, up-and-coming whippersnapper named Jim Cardoza. “The coverts on both sides of the Connecticut River between Hadley and Sunderland on one side and Deerfield and Hatfield on the other were immense, and they contained viable reproductive pheasant populations supplemented annually by stocking from our state game farms.”

That lament came over and over again during the early 1980s, when Pollack and McDonough were closing in on retirement after long and loyal DFW careers. Simultaneously, the vast riverside wetlands in the Hampshire/Franklin spillover areas Pollack spoke of were being reduced or outright obliterated by development and the cultural drift away from family farms.

Residents of the local towns mentioned by Pollack grew accustomed to seeing the aforementioned spring broods of small pheasant chicks in their travels, and hunters back then always had a chance of bagging big, mature, 2- and maybe even 3-year-old trophy cock pheasants buried in deep, dense coverts where hunter-wary birds were most likely to lurk. Of course, those were also the days when hens were protected and could not be shot, assuring that there were always enough breeding hens “out there” to support at least a pseudo-“wild” population propagated by surviving cocks mating with the surplus state-game-farm hens released at various times of the year.

That dynamic changed dramatically in the 1980s, when the state game farms started closing, pheasants were purchased from private vendors, and hens became fair game, eliminating a key component necessary for “wild” birds, which can still be found here and there if you’re lucky, but are few and far between. The deck is stacked against the young birds stocked each fall. With leg-hold trapping outlawed by referendum in 1996, there are now far too many predators like coyotes, fox, bobcats and fishers, all of which can easily catch freshly stocked, farm-raised pheasants that escape hunters. Another factor contributing to quick mortality are the protected birds of prey, which almost all members of state stocking crews have witnessed catching pheasants as soon as they hit the ground after release from crowded cases carried by trucks to stocking sites. Many more birds that escape hunters are taken by hawks in subsequent days, when still vulnerable to feathered and furred predators patrolling their new surroundings night and day.

Nonetheless, the state liberally stocks pheasants during the season, when many of the approximately 45,000 (including some 5,000 birds given to private clubs that raise and release them on private coverts) are left for area hunters, primarily on state Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), some of which are stocked daily. Other WMAs are stocked two and three times a week, funneling most hunting pressure from the private land of decades back to state-owned and maintained coverts with strict rules about wearing hunter-orange caps for visibility and safety.

Massachusetts pheasant-stocking began in 1906, when, according to MassWildlife figures, the state’s landscape was 80 percent open fields and pasture, 20 percent forest. Today, those percentages have flipped to 80 percent forest and 20 percent open land, the factor state biologists blame for the disappearance of at least a small self-sustaining wild-pheasant population. Thus hens became fair game in the early 1980s.

Prior to that, the state stocked even more birds for the hunting season, with an annual total of 54,000 cocks released mostly onto private. And that didn’t even tally all the surplus hens released in spring, summer and fall. Initially, to justify the move to an open season on hens raised on state game farms in Sandwhich, Ayer and Wilbraham, state officials claimed they had to annually hatch and raise twice the birds that could be hunted, claiming it was a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. Eventually, the statewide stocking total dropped to approximately 45,000 before state game farms were closed in favor of buying a mix of cocks and hens from private vendors, some in-state, some out of state. That way, every bird purchased and released could be hunted.

So, today, we’re dealing with strictly put-and-take pheasant hunting, with the mother lode of pressure found on crowded, liberally stocked WMAs instead of scattered, more peaceful private farms and bordering swamps. And these days every bird that takes flight is legal.

The good news for Connecticut Valley District hunters is that their district allotment (10,000, plus club birds) is second only to the Central District, which gets 13,000. The Western District, which wanders into Ashfield and Hawley, receives 4,000 pheasants annually.

Remember, fellas, whenever a bird flushes, your first move is to plant your feet in the right direction. Then mount, swing, squeeze off a thunderous roar, and issue that friendly “fetch it up” command gun dogs love.
Crisp fall air is perfect for the activity.

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