Raising wild gamebirds; A lesson in caretaking
SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — This summer, Erin Denman, 14, a student in Tri-Valley Central School District, and Dustyn Kratz, 13, a student in Liberty Central School District, are among a select group of young people from 4H involved in raising wild pheasant chicks, which they will release into the wild this fall. This Cooperative Pheasant Chick Program goes back more than 100 years in New York State (NYS), and not only students, but also sportsmen’s and game hunting clubs participate, releasing the birds on their own property or in designated areas.
On May 6, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), Sullivan County received a shipment of hundreds of day-old pheasant chicks that were then distributed to local 4H club members and others interested in rearing pheasants, under a partnership program with state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). DEC has two interests in this project: repopulating areas with ring-necked pheasants (the wild pheasant population has declined more than 90% in NYS since the late 1960s), and supplying enough of these game birds for hunters.
All of the pheasants in this program are hatched at the Richard E. Reynolds Game Farm located near Ithaca, which this year will raise some 34,000 ring-necked pheasants to maturity at the farm, and provide more than 40,000 day-old chicks to be raised by volunteers statewide. “The program is paid for “100% through conservation fund money collected from hunting licenses,” Reynolds Game Farm Manager Jeff Smith pointed out.
According to Smith, the reason for the decline in pheasant population has been loss of habitat—forests reclaiming open fields, small family farms succumbing to the expansion of larger farming operations—and increased predator activity.
Smith talked about a primary goal of the pheasant program. “Pheasant hunting is a unique type of hunting because it relies on fairly well trained hunting dogs,” he said, adding that “There’s still a strong interest in hunting in open habitat with a well trained dog.”
For Erin Denman and her family—parents Kathy and Michael—in Grahamsville, this is the fourth year for raising pheasant chicks. (They also raise their own chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese.)
“Back when we first got the chicks [from CCE], they’d fit in the palm of my hand.” Erin remarked. Sadly, this year, the Denmans lost more than a dozen of the 27 chicks they received, the first time this has happened to them. It turned out that the temporary storage bin they were in was too tall and the two heat lamps used to warm the tiny chicks were too far away from the babies to do the job. When they realized the problem, the changed to a different pen and things turned around quickly. “When they’re that small, they’re very sensitive to cold temperatures,” Erin explained. “Now, after two weeks under the lights in their new container, they’re healthy again and running around.”
The Denmans take great care not to handle the birds except when they clean the small pen. As Kathy pointed out, “They are wild birds, and we are going to release them into the wild,” so as caretakers, they don’t want the birds bonding with them.
At around five weeks, the Denmans will move the pheasants from their indoor container in the basement to a large pen outdoors, well fortified to keep out predators. After 18 weeks, they will set them free into the wild. “For one week after we release them, I put out some food, but I dwindle it a little bit every day, until they go off on their own,” Kathy explained. From time to time over the years, the family has seen some of their pheasants living nearby in the open.
In the Town of Liberty, the Kratz family—John and Tara and their three boys, ages 6, 10 and 13—are embarking on their first year of raising day-old chicks. Dustyn is the primary caretaker. “I’m really interested in animals,” he said. (The family raises chickens, ducks and rabbits, and they have a hedge hog, a Guinea pig and two lizards.) Dustyn said he learned a lot about how to raise the pheasants from taking the educational class CCE offered this year. Like the Denmans, the Kratzs lost some of their chicks—eight of the 30 they got from CCE. Without the class, Dustyn contemplated that he might have lost more.
At CCE, Agriculture and 4H Educator Michelle Lipari explained that the class was designed both to teach how to care for the chicks and to give the students confidence.
Dustyn rises at 6 a.m., time enough to tend the pheasants, chickens, ducks and rabbits and make it to the school bus at 7:20. In the evening he repeats the process of making sure they have enough food and water. The Kratzs have a good-sized shed in the backyard equipped with a heat lamp for warmth. When the chicks reach four weeks old, Dystyn will start to leave the shed door open, so the birds can come and go on their own. Dustyn and his dad are still in the process of fortifying the connecting outdoor pen not only to keep out predators, but also with plastic mesh above to keep the birds from flying out the top. They also have put an old Christmas tree in the outdoor pen, so the birds can learn about finding a place to hide or to nest.
The Kratzs, too, hope that some of their birds will survive in the wild—escaping both prey and hunters. “We hope some will stay in our area,” John said. “It would be cool to see a pair running around nearby with little ones.”
[Note: In Sullivan County, pheasant- hunting season runs from October 1 through February 28. Young people with a youth hunting license can hunt on the weekend prior to the season opening—on September 29 and 30.]