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    Old-Timey Pheasant Facts

    Otter, the chocolate Lab, lords over his master’s limit of South Dakota roosters.
    Otter, the chocolate Lab, lords over his master’s limit of South Dakota roosters.
    In one of his “Pages Past” columns, The Upland Almanac contributor Glen Blackwood suggested that we hunters spend some off-season time with biological books and bulletins to better know our favorite upland game birds. So I did.

    For the umpteenth time, I reread The Ring-necked Pheasant. It’s a 1945 compilation edited by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist W.L. McAtee and published by The American Wildlife Institute in Washington, D.C. It features contributions by wildlife management luminaries of the time such as Paul Errington, a professor of wildlife biology at Iowa State University, and Howard Wight, an associate professor of forest zoology at the University of Michigan. In different publications, each man was called “a pioneer of animal ecology.” These men collected their data and pulled no punches when it came to identifying sources of pheasant mortality, some of which are within a hunter’s control and border on tragedy.

    In their chapter on Ohio pheasants, other researchers Daniel Leedy and Lawrence Hicks reported that hunters took an average of 29.6% of all pheasants bagged on the first day of hunting season, 17.9% on the second day and 8.0% on the third. Thus, 55.5% – more than half – of all birds harvested were taken during the first three days of hunting season.

    The myth of the “wily wooster” is legendary and has a solid basis in fact. But if these data generalize, at least half of all roosters harvested during a hunting season are taken during the extended opening weekend, when about three-quarters of the fall population consists of naive young birds – relatively easy pickings. While we’re on the topic of mortality, we might as well consider its opposite – survivorship: Leedy and Hicks found that the average lifespan of a ring-necked pheasant is 10 months for roosters and 21 months for hens. The oldest reported age for a wild ringneck in North America is 8 years. Now that would have been a fun bird to hunt, not so much fun to eat.

    Leedy and Hicks also reported that it took an average of 4.2 shots to bag a pheasant, and each box of 25 shells used in pheasant hunting resulted in an average harvest of six to eight birds. Leedy and Hicks further reported that city hunters required 4.0 to 4.2 hours to bag a pheasant; small town hunters required 3.5 to 3.6 hours. The average pheasant harvested provided 3.7 hours of sport.

    We pheasant hunters are either terrible shots or fail to use our best judgment when taking shots. My guess is that both statements are true in just about equal parts. Most hunters do not practice the art of scattergun shooting nearly enough, and when they do, they practice “wrong” based on the realities of actual hunting – with guns shouldered to improve their scores and their standings back in the clubhouse. It is best to practice the way you play, which small town folks apparently did more often than city slickers.

    Leedy and Hicks also found that 28% of the fall crop of roosters were shot and taken as legal game, 14% of roosters were crippled and lost, and 3.6% were shot illegally. Nearly all birds crippled subsequently died as a result of their wounds. Errington, working in Iowa, found exactly the same result – that for each two pheasants bagged, one escaped wounded to die or was killed but not found. Errington advised using trained dogs to search for downed birds, especially in dense cover, but he also suggested that by far the best single precaution the hunter can take to avoid crippling and losing pheasants is to only shoot at birds near enough to be killed cleanly – generally within 35 yards with 12-gauge guns loaded with proper ammunition. Leedy and Hicks noted one other fact: Large groups of hunters crippled more pheasants than lone hunters and spent less time looking for downed birds in order to keep the group moving.

    If Errington, who knew a thing or two about both hunting and shooting, were alive today, he might recommend shells containing 1¼ ounces of shot no smaller than no. 5 as “proper ammunition” to avoid crippling birds. And I bet he would likely add, “You have to hit prairie roosters hard, and dammit, no matter the size of your hunting party, you owe it both to the bird and your reputation as a sportsman to look long and hard for downed birds. It always takes less time to find a downed rooster than it does to find and flush another one.”

    In 1937, in Wood County, Ohio, Leedy and Hicks reported the average kill was 89 roosters per square mile. Elsewhere, the average was only 25 pheasants per square mile.

    The cornfields of today are nothing like the sloppy, unruly fields of the 1930s or even the 1960s fields of my youth. Those stands were tougher to walk but easier to see through and over. Today’s genetically modified hybrid strains boosted by herbicides and pesticides produce clean rows bordered by tightly planted, uniformly tall stalks. Can today’s weed-free, bug-free cornfields support pheasant densities of 89 roosters harvested per square mile? Not usually. In fact, I suspect even Leedy and Hicks’ low value of 25 roosters per square mile stretches the upper limit of our modern day experience.

    Again, Leedy and Hicks: The legal kill of roosters did not diminish the crop of the following year. In fact, the removal of excess roosters relieved population pressure, including food competition, and permitted the survival of more hens.

    Spring turkeys aside, pheasants are the only upland bird species whose females are protected by hunting laws. Take only males. Perfect. Males can be sacrificed without harming the population. Data scattered throughout McAtee’s volume suggest an optimal breeding ratio of four or five hens for every rooster.

    A final fact from Leedy and Hicks: The chief factor limiting pheasant populations is the illegal killing of hens in the open season on roosters. On average, for every five roosters killed, there was an illegal kill of about two hens.

    This is a tragic statistic, and I wonder if these 1930s data hold today. If they do, hunters are shooting either carelessly or callously. A hen pheasant lays an average of nine eggs each breeding season, and life outdoors being what it is – red in tooth and claw – only two of these eggs are likely to result in living pheasants by October. Given that roosters and hens are produced in equal numbers, every hen illegally killed removes at least one rooster the following season. Applying this calculus, Leedy and Hicks’ average of five roosters and two hens shot this year becomes three roosters produced next year. Think about it.

    McAtee’s book has been with me for a while now, and I find myself, a city slicker, comparing my performance with his contributors’ historical numbers. In particular, I pay attention to two categories: “shots taken per bird” and “number of cripples lost.” Both of these indicate shot selection, shooting accuracy and, to some extent, dog work. Because human performance is based more on what we inspect instead of what we expect, it has only been by paying attention to these numbers that I’ve improved, both as a hunter and as a sportsman.

    Wolfe Publishing Group