The primary goal of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Pheasant Propagation Program is to provide a quality game bird for regulated hunting opportunities. Initially, the purpose of pheasant stocking was to help establish self-sustaining populations. However, numerous studies have shown that although a few birds may survive long enough to reproduce, viable wild populations are not produced.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, pheasants flourished in Pennsylvania. Pheasant populations peaked in 1971, when more than 700,000 hunters harvested an estimated 1.3 million birds. When the pheasant population peaked, stocking continued as a means of supplementing wild birds, especially in heavily hunted areas. Pheasant populations have disappeared across most of the state since the mid 1970s. We raise pheasants because people like to hunt them. In a 1996 survey of Pennsylvania hunters conducted by the Pennsylvania State University, only 39 percent of respondents were satisfied with the pheasant stocking program, the lowest rating for any Game Commission program in the survey. However, 61 percent of respondents indicated they would like to see an increase in pheasant stocking, and 72 percent were opposed to closing pheasant propagation facilities to generate more operating capital for agency programs.
Certainly wild pheasants are preferred; however, our stocked pheasants provide countless hours of hunting recreation that otherwise would not be available. These birds are a tangible product for hunting license buyers. They add diversity to the hunting experience at a time when wild pheasant populations are low, and provide valuable youth hunter recruitment opportunities.
Our Propagation History
The Game Commission's propagation program began in 1905 when a special appropriation was set aside for the propagation and purchase of certain game. 1915 marked the first large-scale stocking of game birds with the release of 1,000 purchased pheasants. The next year nearly 1,000 additional pheasants were released as a result of commission refuge keepers' and sportsmen's clubs' efforts to hatch and rear birds. The refuge keeper propagation approach continued until 1929; that year, two game farms, one in Montgomery County and another in Lawrence County were established.
The Western Game Farm, originally called the "Jordan State Game Farm" in Lawrence County, was later moved to its present location in Crawford County. Birds from this facility are released in northwestern and a portion of southwestern Pennsylvania. In 1933 the Loyalsock Game Farm in Lycoming County was established. This facility provides birds to southeastern Pennsylvania, and portions of northeastern and southcentral Pennsylvania. The Northcentral Game Farm, also located in Lycoming County, was established in 1945 as a wild turkey farm. This farm was converted to pheasant production in 1981. Birds from the Northcentral Farm are released throughout northcentral Pennsylvania, as well as in portions of northeastern and southcentral Pennsylvania. The Southwest Game Farm in Armstrong County was established in 1953 and its birds are distributed in southwestern and a portion of southcentral Pennsylvania.
Over the years the Commission has propagated a variety of game birds to supplement wild populations, and to help establish new game bird populations. In the early `30s, the Commission initiated wild turkey and northern bobwhite quail propagation programs. A turkey farm was established in Juniata County, and in 1945, moved to Lycoming County. Bobwhite quail propagation was started at the Fisher State Game Farm, Montgomery County, which was later renamed the Eastern Game Farm. A Wild Waterfowl Farm was also established in Crawford County in 1955 to propagate mallard ducks. We also have raised and released Hungarian partridges and a variety of pheasant breeds.
Today, our propagation program is limited to pheasants. Our goal is to provide a quality pheasant for sport hunting. Each year about 200,000 pheasants are hatched and reared at our game farms, and released during fall and winter for hunting. Birds are released right before opening day of the youth, regular and late pheasant hunting seasons, as well as in-season to provide additional hunting recreation for sportsmen and sportswomen.
Pheasant Propagation Program
The Game Commission operates four game farms and distributes about 200,000 ring-necked pheasants annually. These birds are released throughout the state to provide increased hunting opportunities. Sportsmen's organizations participating in the day-old chick program are provided pheasant chicks to raise and release. All birds are released on lands open to public hunting. Additionally, day-old hen chicks and eggs are sold to the general public and given to schools for educational projects.
Our game farms have implemented rearing techniques designed to produce a wilder, hardier bird. Rearing pens covered with netting are used to raise free-flying birds. The rearing density has been lowered and a diversified habitat with cover crops of corn, sorghum and oats are planted in these pens to provide a natural environment. Direct contact with humans is minimized with the expectation that pheasants will learn to fend for themselves and retain their natural wariness.
Pheasant Release Sites
Pheasants are stocked on State Game Lands, other state, ffederal and county properties, as well as on properties enrolled in the Commission's hunter access programs. Hunter access lands include both farm game and safety zone projects. Detailed maps of State Game Lands are available at Game Commission Offices.
The first pheasant releases are for the Youth Pheasant Hunting Season, which runs concurrent with the junior squirrel hunt the Saturday before Columbus Day, and Monday the Holiday. These birds can provide a positive hunting opportunity for youth and also can be a wonderful opportunity for bird dog owners to take a junior hunter out and to train their dogs at the same time. We encourage others to respect this opportunity for young hunters and hold off on dog training until after the hunt. October also is a good time to do some scouting, locate State Game Lands and contact landowners enrolled in our public access program. Some hens also are released during the late small game season in areas where both sexes are legal to harvest.
For a listing of State Game Lands, State Parks and federal lands that will receive pheasant stockings use the table provided below.
Pre-Season & In-Season
Where To Look For Pheasants
The best opportunities for pheasant hunters exist on our State Game Lands where most pheasants are released. Even though these areas are hunted hard, many birds remain motionless in dense cover often going undetected by the hunter. Working all covers thoroughly and using a good dog greatly increases your chance of locating birds.
When pheasants are stocked, they may travel more than two miles looking for suitable habitat. During the fall it's natural for pheasants to flock up and locate overwintering cover adjacent to food sources. They can be found traveling through oldfields to shrub-brush habitats such as barberry, multiflora rose and autumn olive. Pheasants also can be found occupying marshes and small woodlot areas, which provide escape cover and important emergency food in winter.
Ring-Necked Pheasant Habitat
Pheasants are associated with farmland. Ideal pheasant range is composed of a minimum of 70 percent cropland and 30 percent brush and marsh. Ideally pheasant habitat is less than 15 percent woodland. A crop mixture evenly divided with small grains, corn and hay is best. Hay is preferred as nesting cover by pheasants, although they also will nest in winter grain, idle cropland (foxtail, ragweed), shrubby old-fields (goldenrod, aster, rose, elderberry and sumac), small woodlots and conifer plantings. These diverse habitats provide nesting cover for hens and food essential for chicks such as insects, weed seeds, rose hips, elderberry, sumac, and wild cherries, but corn and small grains are the adult pheasant's major food source.
Brushy hedgerows and streambanks provide travel lanes to food sources and roosting areas, as opposed to areas with mature trees, which provide perches for avian predators. Marshes and shelterbelts comprised of three to five rows of fruit-producing shrubs and conifers at least 15 feet high provide thermal protection during winter, in addition to roosting and loafing areas. High-energy food such as standing corn or sorghum should be located within 100 yards of winter cover to reduce pheasant's exposure to the elements and predators.
Pheasant Population Decline
Pennsylvania had the distinction of having some of the highest pheasant densities in the nation around 1970. Why? The federal government developed programs to idle highly erodible farmland and boost crop prices. The Soil Bank (1956-66) and Feed Grain Program (1960s to 1973), idled 500,000 to 600,000 acres in Pennsylvania. Much of this land when idled was already planted in fields of timothy and clover, a preferred nesting cover for pheasants. When these federal programs were discontinued, farmland was put back into production.
By the mid 1970s, pheasant population and harvest trends had begun to decline. Not only in Pennsylvania, but in all eastern states. Economic trends in agriculture have resulted in intensified farming practices. Increased pesticide use, row crop acreage, earlier hay mowing, drainage of wetlands, the elimination of hedgerows on agricultural lands, and increasing urban sprawl all have contributed to the decline of pheasant populations.
More subtle changes also are taking their toll on pheasants and other wildlife dependent on farmland and grassland habitats. The few hedgerows and small woodlots that still exist may seem to remain unchanged, but as they mature, the understory cover so important to pheasants, rabbits and many other animals diminishes. Brushy areas have grown into small woodlots, and the small woodlots of years ago are maturing into forests that provide habitat for squirrels, turkey and deer.
Pheasant range has shrunk at an alarming rate. Approximately 716,000 acres of farmland mostly prime pheasant habitat were lost to urban development from the mid-'70s through the early 1990s. Within the last decade, the greatest changes to Pennsylvania's farmland have been the permanent conversion of agricultural lands to commercial and residential development. The intensification of farming on remaining agricultural areas provides little winter cover and virtually no secure nesting cover for pheasants. Besides the direct loss of wildlife habitat, development leads to more roads and more traffic. This fragmentation often results in habitat patches too small to sustain viable pheasant populations.
The Future For Pheasants in Pennsylvania
In the past, we thought we could maintain viable pheasant populations on small tracts, such as individual farms. However, recent studies suggest that we must manage on a much larger landscape scale, in areas of perhaps 20,000 or more acres. Approximately one percent of Pennsylvania's farmland is in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which is scattered throughout all of Pennsylvania. States with rebounding pheasant populations have more than 10 percent of cropland in CRP. One study suggests that 25 percent of farmland should be in CRP for secure idle grass cover to maximize pheasant reproduction and brood survival.
A new federal program - the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) - has given new hope to preserving ten of thousands of acres of marginal privately-owned farmland for water quality improvement, which in turn could help farmland species, including pheasants.
To affect and restore pheasant habitats will require major funding initiatives with partners such as Pheasants Forever, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, county conservation districts, Ducks Unlimited, and the expansion of the CRP and CREP, as well as the cooperative efforts of private landowners. The Commission's Farmland Wildlife Recovery Program is designed to work with farmers and landowners, as well as these partners. Given the current trends in agriculture and land use, it will be very difficult to restore wild pheasant populations in Pennsylvania.
The benefits to Pennsylvania of restoring wild pheasant populations on our farmland are much greater than just restoring a beautiful and sporting game bird. Programs designed to bring back the pheasant will improve water quality, reduce soil erosion, and bring back other native species such as the northern bobwhite and barn owl. It also will help ensure the family farm remains a part of our culture and heritage. The effects of habitat improvement for pheasants may not be felt for more than a decade. However, working together we can secure the future for farmland-dependent wildlife!
To learn more about pheasant management in Pennsylvania, view a copy of the pheasant management plan click