Pheasant Stocking: An ineffective management tool
In the past 50 years, conflicting views have fueled debate over the effectiveness of stocking pen-reared pheasants to increase wild ring-necked pheasant populations. Most often, sportsmen have been on one side of this debate, wildlife biologists the other. This frustrates professional wildlife managers because stocking of pen-raised birds is not an efficient means to increase wild bird populations. Developing and enhancing habitat, on the other hand, has proven to help increase ring-necked numbers.
By definition, "stocking" is the release of pen-reared pheasants into habitat where wild birds already are present. "Introductions" or "transplants" are different. These refer to the release of birds into areas where birds are not generally present, using management that has been studied very thoroughly.
What follows are answers to the most commonly asked questions about stocking. This information is the product of research conducted by many states and countries. It also represents conclusions of thousands of landowners who have tried stocking without success.
What kind of survival rate can be expected from pheasants stocked in the summer or fall at 8-14 weeks of age?
On average, only 60 percent will survive the initial week of release. After one month, roughly 25 percent will remain. Over-winter survival has been documented as high as 10 percent but seldom exceeds 5 percent of birds released.
That being the case, shouldn't we close the hunting season to protect the newly-stocked birds?
For the most part, hunting has little to do with poor survival. Predators take the real toll, accounting for more than 90 percent of all deaths. The reason: pen-reared birds never had a chance to learn predator avoidance behavior. Starvation can also be a problem. Some newly-released pheasants take up to three weeks to develop optimal foraging patters essential to survival in the wild.
If predators are the problem, shouldn't we eliminate more of them?
Reducing predator populations to levels where pheasant numbers can rise would involve astronomical costs. In addition, many predators are federally protected and cannot be harmed. Some pheasants will always be lost to predators, but well-designed habitat can reduce predation by up to 80 percent.
If over-winter survival is so poor, why not wait until spring to release breeder hens?
Mortality is still very high, and roughly 40 to 70 percent of the hens will perish before attempting to nest. Also, high mortality rates continue even after nests are initiated or eggs successfully hatched, resulting in dismally low production. Average production of spring-released hens ranges from 5 to 40 chicks per 100 hens released. Thus, released hens are not productive enough to replace their own losses.
In our area, survival must be higher. I see birds near the release site all the time. Can't survival be different in different areas?
There often will be a few that make it, but studies have shown they are unable to maintain a population. This is why local stocking programs continue year after year. Ultimately we must ask ourselves why there is a need to repeat stocking efforts on an annual basis if survival is as high as often claimed.
Okay, maybe the survival rate isn't very good, but isn't minimal survival better than none at all?
Not necessarily. We're concerned about a self-sustaining population that we won't have to continually supplement with pen-raised birds. In order to remain at a constant level, wild pheasant populations must have a production rate of roughly four chicks (surviving to 10 weeks) per hen. With production rates of less than one chick per hen, a population would decline rapidly (see Figure 1).
If stocking initially established pheasants in my state, why wouldn't it work now?
When pheasants were first introduced, the landscape was far different from the one we have today. Farming techniques were primitive, field sizes smaller and crops more diversified. These habitat conditions created a situation ideally suited for the introduction of a farmland species like the ring-necked pheasant.
How much does it cost to raise a pen-reared pheasant?
Anywhere from $3 to $15 a bird, depending on when they are released. If you think about it in terms of the cost for either surviving hens or roosters harvested, the figures are especially discouraging. Again, these figures assume maximum production (see Table 1).
Even if I'm not doing much good by releasing birds, what's the real harm?
Though not proven, there is cause for concern. Genetic dilution may be occurring. Even with minimal survival, the release of thousands of pen-raised birds over many years may be diminishing the "wildness" of the wild stock. Another concern is that, by releasing hundreds of birds in a given area, predators may start keying on pheasants. This may result in wild birds incurring higher predation. Finally, there is the potential of disease transmission from released birds to the wild flock.
That being the case, why are so many clubs and several state agencies still stocking pheasants?
State agencies stock pheasants to provide additional hunting opportunities for their residents. In most cases there is a great deal of pressure from sportsmen's groups to continue these programs, despite their cost and potential problems. Sportsmen's clubs continue to stock because it is easy and gives members a sense of accomplishment. Many individuals misunderstand or don't believe the facts associated with releasing pen-reared birds.
What if I just want to put a few more birds in the bag?
Simple enough. Release the birds as close to the time you want to hunt as possible. To do otherwise is a waste of money. Pen-raised birds do provide shooting opportunities and a chance to keep your dog in shape. Just keep in mind that these birds are not going to produce a wild self-sustaining population in your area.
Is there hope for areas with severely depressed pheasant populations?
Yes. Start by understanding pheasant habitat needs. What kinds of areas do pheasants nest in? What are optimal covers in which they survive harsh winters? How can these areas be created and preserved? The answers can be learned from your local wildlife professionals. Consider becoming a Pheasants Forever member. Informative and educational articles on these and other subjects are part of every Pheasants Forever magazine. If you are serious about improving local habitat conditions, consider joining or forming a local chapter.
If local habit conditions are substantially improved, where are the pheasants going to come from?
Because of their high productivity, "wild" pheasants in the area can quickly populate newly-created habitats. In unpopulated areas of suitable habitat, transplanting wild birds of their offspring (F1 generation) appears to be the best solution. Even releases of F1 stock, however, have yielded some success. The first step should be an investigation of factors that have limited pheasant populations in the past, i.e., lack of winter habitat or increased pesticide use.
Where can I obtain wild or F1 generation pheasants?
Release programs of this nature are undertaken by some state wildlife agencies after suitable release areas have been identified. Agencies have the sole authority to trap wild birds or trade for them with other states. Involvement by private groups or individuals most often takes the form of donated manpower or money to help finance such operations.
Okay, at least I know where to start, but can we realistically hope to see abundant wild pheasants again?
Yes. During the past 50 years there has been a colossal amount of money spent on supplemental stocking programs by state and local governments, sportsmen's groups and private individuals. If these dollars would have been invested in habitat restoration, hundreds of species of wildlife in addition to pheasants would have been benefited. Here's the bottom line: when habitat conditions improve, wild pheasant populations will increase in response to that habitat.
Need more information about enhancing pheasant populations?
Try the Pheasants Forever Essential Habitat Guide — a handy reference on all kinds of pheasant cover, including shelterbelts, food plots and nesting cover. And, be sure to check with your local Pheasants Forever chapter, where you will find cost sharing, planting assistance, or just advice from a friendly chapter volunteer.