Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A ringneck rooster wings for cover in the Kettle Moraine State Forest near Eagle. © Frank Schemberger

A ringneck rooster wings for cover in the Kettle Moraine State Forest near Eagle.
© Frank Schemberger

February 2009

Raising ringnecks and outdoor opportunities

Partners team up to set aside and improve grassland habitat, stock pheasants and bolster hunting opportunity.

Kathryn A. Kahler

Life has its ups and downs. Some years are good, others bad. So it goes with pheasants. Some years, Mother Nature shows her nasty side. Others, itís the foibles of human nature that take charge. When nature threw a one-two punch last winter and into the spring, a human event also dealt a deciding blow. When spring surveys were tallied, Wisconsinís pheasant population showed a 30 percent decline.

Hunters need not worry, though. Despite the decline, wildlife managers believe Wisconsinís wild pheasant population is healthy and will rally over time. License fees and pheasant stamp dollars, stretched by contributions from partners, will improve thousands of acres of pheasant habitat. Coupled with stable funding for a time-honored and well respected stocking program, pheasant hunters can look forward to continued years of hunting opportunities on public and private land.

Mother Nature and human nature

Pheasants need a combination of overwinter habitat, spring nesting cover and adequate year-round food supplies to survive. These needs are met in much of the southeastern third of the state and in a five-county area in west central Wisconsin, on both public and private land. But it was there that man and nature teamed up to wreak havoc, according to Scott Hull, DNRís game bird coordinator.

"We all predicted it would occur," said Hull, "we just didn't know how bad it would be, and a 30 percent decline is what we saw. Pheasants are fairly hardy game birds, but not when we have 100 inches of snow. We knew the overwinter survival would be lower. Then came spring flooding during nesting season, which hampered production to some degree."

The human factor was the loss of about 200,000 acres of bird habitat on private land formerly kept in grasslands that will change by 2010. Landowners are planting more row crops and have chosen not to renew or extend their contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

"Thatís going to affect upland bird productivity," Hull concluded. ďThere will be fewer places for pheasants to nest and raise broods."

CRP is a federal land conservation program created by the 1985 Farm Bill that pays landowners to keep marginal farmland out of production. As the price of commodities such as wheat and corn fluctuate, farmers may decide itís not worth it to plant. Instead, some sign 10- to 15-year contracts for CRP payments to let acreage revert to grasses. Over the years CRP has created over 30 million acres of grassland habitat in the U.S. – as much as 700,000 acres in Wisconsin at its peak in the mid-1990s. Now higher corn prices and the lure of biofuels production have some reverting that land to cropland.

"The name of the game for wild pheasants is habitat and we know what works," said Hull. "Grassland habitat is the answer and getting it on the landscape in the right locations and in the right amounts is key. Thatís why the CRP program has been the biggest boon for grassland birds. Wisconsin has never [had as many acres enrolled] as some of the states in the Great Plains region where they have three or four million acres, but weíve had our fair share and it has produced birds."

Partners like Pheasants Forever, Wings Over Wisconsin and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work with private landowners to provide adequate grassland habitat for pheasants. © Ron Toel
Partners like Pheasants Forever, Wings Over Wisconsin and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work with private landowners to provide adequate grassland habitat for pheasants.
© Ron Toel

Hull stresses that the success of pheasants and pheasant habitat really depends on what happens with the U.S. Farm Bill.

"To that end, Pheasants Forever is a key ally in working with Congress to get strong, solid conservation programs into the Farm Bill," said Hull. "Pheasants pretty much live or die by what happens with the Farm Bill and what happens with private lands."

That sentiment is echoed by Jeff Gaska, Pheasant Forever's regional biologist stationed in Columbia County. Gaska works full-time for the organization and does some farming on the side. He believes his avocation helps him see things from the farmer's perspective as well as whatís best for pheasants.

"We always try to work with the farmers to come up with good programs that are a win-win for everybody," says Gaska. "If farmers donít buy into programs like CRP, we donít have pheasants, period."

Gaska and members of Wisconsinís 31 local chapters of Pheasants Forever work with landowners to increase pheasant nesting success by providing buffers, or "travel links," along edges of fields and streams, advising them on the best times to mow to assure minimal nest disturbance, and suggesting what kinds of grasses and forbs provide the best cover and food.

Hull isnít predicting doomsday for the pheasant population however, and in fact, he says that in the long term it will be fine. He predicts the commodity climate will change. Corn prices that saw a high of $7 a bushel and helped fuel the CRP bailout will fall again, and people will want to get back into CRP. Meantime, the Department of Natural Resources and its partners are adding grassland to the landscape to offset the loss.

"Ultimately, the wild pheasant population in the state is fine," said Hull. "There are always ups and downs and sometimes they are weather-related. These just came together all at once last year."

Stocking program

In years when the wild pheasant population declines, Wisconsin hunters can be thankful for DNRís put-and-take stocking program that provides additional hunting opportunity. For many years, the wildlife community believed supplementing wild bird populations with game farm birds would permanently bolster the wild population. The state experimented with a variety of strains, most recently in the 1990s with wild birds from Iowa and the Jilin province of China. Hull says such efforts just donít work.

"You see a local population boost temporarily, but then it just goes right back down and eventually dies out," he said. "You boost the wild pheasant population by improving habitat. Thatís the bottom line. In Wisconsin, our constituents have repeatedly told us that what they want from the game farm is the additional hunting opportunity that stocking provides, so thatís what weíre doing."

The workhorse of the stateís pheasant stocking program is the State Game Farm in Poynette. Built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it is the source of an average of 150,000 stocked birds each year. In 2008, about 53,000 adult birds were raised at the farm and stocked on 70 public hunting grounds in 28 counties; 6,000 day-old chicks went to correctional facilities for rearing and stocking; 46,000 day-old chicks were delivered to 44 conservation clubs for rearing and stocking; and about 31,000 hens were sold to private cooperators.

Game farm operations have streamlined and modernized over the years responding to budget cuts and shifting policies. In early years, the facility propagated not only upland birds – like pheasant, partridge, ruffed grouse, quail, turkeys and prairie chickens – but geese, ducks and mammals, including mink, otter, raccoons, foxes, pine marten and rabbits. Currently, only ring-necked pheasants are raised. When production levels peaked at 270,000 birds in 1957, full-time staff numbered around 40; today, a trimmed down crew of seven operates the facility, with the help of part-timers and volunteers.

From hatch to release

Just as any other farmer will tell you, raising pheasants is a year-round, labor intensive pursuit. State Game Farm operations begin in earnest in February when breeding is induced at indoor breeding barns, and work continues through pheasant round-up and shipping in early December. On average, the indoor breeding flock is composed of 3,000 hens and 200 roosters. An outdoor breeding flock of 4,400 hens and 500 roosters begins breeding about the same time.

Daily egg collection continues for about 10 to 12 weeks, resulting in a total of about 350,000. Eggs are washed, candled to check Males and females of newly hatched chicks are raised separately. © Kathryn A. Kahlerfor imperfections, placed on trays of 228 and moved to the incubators. The farm has 45 incubators, each of which can accommodate 14 trays, or a total of 3,192 eggs per incubator.

After 25 days, the eggs hatch and workers scoop the fluffy chicks into trays where they wait to be sexed. Game farm employees and volunteers determine the sex of day-old chicks by inspecting the area between the beak and the eye. Males cocks) have a tiny, crescent shaped flap of skin that will become the wattle when it matures; females donít.

Once the sex is determined, males and females are divided and raised separately. They are first moved to indoor brooder houses where temperature, food, water and light are carefully controlled to assure maximum survival and growth rates. Great care is taken to keep the rooms clean and disease free. Employees and visitors must wash the bottoms of their shoes before entering. In between hatches, the rooms are cleared, power washed and disinfected.

At six weeks, birds are moved to outdoor flight pens where corn has been planted to provide cover. Netting covering the tops of the pens keeps out avian predators like hawks and owls, but staff keep careful watch for predators like foxes, raccoons and mink that can chew through the netting. Birds remain in the outdoor pens until mid-October when they are rounded up, placed in crates and trucked to public hunting grounds for release. Round-ups and releases continue daily through much of the pheasant season, ending around the first week of December.

In addition to the stocking programs, the Game Farm provides nearly 1,000 pheasants to the DNR Learn to Hunt Pheasant Program. The program removes common barriers for novice pheasant hunters, such as finding a place to hunt, borrowing a dog, loaning gear, and supplying guns and ammunition.

"DNR recognizes the importance of getting young people involved with pheasant hunting at an early age, and this program gives them that opportunity," says Nack. "We also have a strong relationship with the Wisconsin Association of Field Trial Clubs and each year provide nearly 1,000 hens to clubs for use during field trials and hunt tests."

Pheasants raised at the farm come from breeding stocks that have been raised in captivity for generations. They arenít likely to survive harsh winters and donít have the instincts to avoid predators that wild birds have.

"They do provide additional hunting opportunities during years of poor wild pheasant production, like this year," says Bob Nack, game farm director. "And they increase hunting opportunity on public hunting grounds where wild birds are difficult to find following the opening weekend of hunting season. Since we stock farm-raised birds throughout the season, thatís a plus for most hunters," he says, especially since access to private lands is a major barrier for most hunters.

Nack says stocking programs also provide a chance for novice and young hunters to learn the sport. If young or new hunters go pheasant hunting but donít find birds after repeated attempts, itís likely they wonít stick with it. Stocking increases their chances of finding birds and retaining an interest in pheasant hunting.

Do hunters note a difference between wild and farm-raised pheasants? Not often. A 2007 survey of Illinois pheasant hunters found that hunters perceived captive-raised birds to be more similar to wild birds than not. Hunters were asked to compare physical characteristics, flushing performance and flight of wild and captive-raised birds, ranking them on a one-to-five scale, with one being very different and five being no different. Overall average responses were in the 3.5 to 3.7 range. Similarly, hunters were asked to rank their hunting experience with captive raised pheasants compared to wild birds. Again, the average response was about 3.5.

DNR has no plans for similar surveys, but Hull says heís well aware that hunters who hunt properties where game farm birds are released want the experience to be as close as possible to a wild hunt.

"They want the birds to look and act wild," he said. "Thatís why Bob Nack and his game farm crew operate the farm the way they do – to produce fewer high-quality birds. He could produce a lot more birds and that would make a segment of the hunting population happy, but the quality of birds would suffer."

Partners provide additional opportunities

Wild pheasant populations and stocking programs both benefit from the help of partners and Pheasant Stamp funds. Today, anyone who hunts pheasants statewide must purchase a $10 stamp in addition to a small game license.

Groups like Pheasants Forever and Wings Over Wisconsin, and agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supplement DNRís efforts by working with private landowners to improve nesting, brood-rearing and winter cover on their properties.

In the 16 years since the Pheasant Stamp was first sold in 1992, DNR has been able to pump over $5 million into projects to improve and maintain habitat on public and private land; conduct population surveys, do outreach and research; purchase equipment; pay field biologists, interns and part-time help; and stock game farm birds on public and private land. About 50 to 75 percent of the stamp funds go into pheasant habitat improvements.

A change in 2006 in the way funds are split now dictates that 60 percent of stamp funds help operate the game farm, which covers about half their overall budget. The remainder of the approximately $375,000 annual stamp revenue supports projects proposed by DNR staff and non-DNR partners.

We strongly encourage cost-sharing and many partners do match our funding, but itís not an absolute requirement," said Sharon Fandel, a DNR wildlife biologist who oversees the program. "In terms of cost-sharing, the estimated partner contribution for the current 2008-09 biennium is $1.1million."

Fandel says current projects include establishing prairie on public and private lands; managing invasive species; controlling predators on pheasant properties; and purchasing ATVs, mowers, and equipment used in prescribed burning, to name a few. They total about $450,000, stretched by about $525,000 in partner funding. Non-DNR projects include restoring and improving grassland habitat on private lands, and funding five new Farm Bill biologist positions statewide. Partner organizations were allotted about $300,000 for these projects and will kick in an additional $634,000 of their own funds.

Pheasants Foreverís Jeff Gaska talked about one such partnership. The Dodge County Pheasants Forever chapter partnered with the DNR Pheasant Stamp and the USFWS Partners for Wildlife program to share costs in establishing 10 acres of native grasses and wildflowers on a Dodge County farm. This planting will provide nesting cover, brood rearing cover and winter cover for pheasants, turkeys, and many songbirds. The landowner has agreed to protect this field for 10 years. By partnering with local, state and federal programs, the chapter was able to stretch the Pheasant Stamp dollars by providing a 3:1 match for stamp dollars.

Game farm operations get help from 44 conservation clubs who get day-old chicks from the state, raise them to adulthood, and then either release them on state-owned land or on private land open to public hunting. If some of the cooperating clubs choose to release the pheasants on private lands closed to public hunting, they must return a percentage of the birds they raised back to the Department of Natural Resources for public stocking.

"Clubs that release birds on private land open to public hunting are required to notify their local DNR wildlife biologist three days prior to the release, where and when the release will happen,Ē said Fandel. "If hunters want that information, they can call the wildlife biologist." To find that contact information, hunters should go to Day-Old Chick Conservation Clubs.

Despite setbacks like winter snow, spring rains of disastrous proportions, and economic problems that caused a massive CRP bailout, Hull remains optimistic about the future of Wisconsinís pheasant population.

"We canít compete with multi-billion-dollar Farm Bill conservation programs like CRP with pheasant stamp monies," Hull concludes. "But we are doing really good pheasant habitat and research work with our funding, and improving our properties and private lands for these birds. Itís just one of many small things we can do for pheasants."

Kathryn A. Kahler writes from Madison.