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Pennsylvania Pheasant History


The pheasant is native to Asia. Recorded attempts to establish pheasants in North America date back to the mid 1700's. These earliest attempts were unsuccessful; it wasn't until 1881 in the Willamette Valley of Oregon that pheasants first became established.

During the early 1890's, private Pennsylvania citizens purchased pheasants from English game keepers and released them in Lehigh and Northampton Counties. For several decades many other small releases across the Commonwealth were made to establish the pheasant for sport hunting.

During the early 1900's the Pennsylvania Game Commission set aside a special appropriation of funds to purchase and propagate game. Pheasant eggs were purchased and given to Commission refuge keepers, sportsmen's organizations and private individuals interested in raising pheasants. The first stocking of pheasants by the Game Commission occurred by 1915.

Self-sustaining populations, however, have had their ups and downs. It wasn't until 1923, when laws were enacted restricting season and bag limits that pheasant populations significantly increased. In 1929 the Commission began the propagation of pheasants on an extensive scale with the establishment of two game farms. During the next 6 decades, to off-set the demand for pheasant hunting, three other farms were placed into operation. Programs also were developed to provide day-old pheasant chicks to sportsmens organizations, 4-H clubs, farmers, and other cooperators for rearing and release on areas of public hunting. In 1959 the number of pheasant chicks distributed to cooperators reached 229,685, an all time high.

During the late 1960's and early 1970's, pheasants flourished in Pennsylvania with annual harvests estimated at over a million birds. By the 1970's, cooperative programs were discontinued except with sportsmen organizations.

In the mid 1970's, the pheasant population and harvest trends started declining. Economic trends in agriculture intensified farming practices, herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers increased substantially in use. Increased row crop acreage, urban developments, and the elimination of fencerows on agricultural lands also are thought to have accelerated the decline in pheasant populations.

Approximately 900,000 acres of farmland - much of this prime pheasant habitat - were lost to urban development from the mid 1970's through the early 1980's.

Two hard winters in 1977 and 1978 further depressed pheasant populations. The Commission attempted to offset declining populations by mass producing and releasing pheasants. We soon learned that mass producing pheasants only resulted in a bird of reduced quality, with a loss of hardiness and increased tameness. Studies conducted in the early 1980's showed that traditional pen-reared pheasants did not survive well in the wild. These studies suggested that learned behavior is the main factor influencing survival.

In the early 1980's the Commission implemented new rearing techniques designed to produce a wilder, hardier bird better prepared for survival. Our game farms reduced rearing densities and provided a diversified habitat under covered fields in which free-flying pheasants are raised. Direct contact with humans was minimized with the expectation that pheasants would learn to fend for themselves and retain their natural wariness.

The most obvious effect of this change was the reduction in the number of pheasants raised and released by the Commission. Production was reduced from an all-time high of 425,217 pheasants in 1983 to approximately 200,000.