By Brad Hall
We always marked the date on our kitchen calendar back then: middle of November, second Saturday of the month.
The opening day of California’s pheasant season.
It was an exciting time, an unofficial holiday at our house. While the Ithaca Model 37 20-gauge pump that was my first bird-hunting gun went into hibernation after dove season, the pheasant opener always promised more chances to pull its trigger.
The big day also meant mingling with family and friends; everyone gathered for an early-morning breakfast, the breaking of bread normally spiced by an abundance of good-natured ribbing about who might shoot the day’s first two-bird limit.
We’d load the dogs and our gear and pile into old pickup trucks, the anticipation boiling raucously. Then it was off to the fields to chase the wily, elusive – majestic, even – ring-necked pheasant.
There was more of the same on Thanksgiving Day morning. It was a ritual – this pheasant hunting stuff was a holiday event. Football games and turkey dinner could wait. We hunted corn and asparagus fields in the Delta west of Stockton, irrigated pasture and flooded marshes near Oakdale, gnarly ditches at the base of the Sutter Buttes and rice fields in the Sacramento Valley.
We’d travel wherever permission allowed us to hunt. And birds were not hard to find.
But my, how things have changed. The pheasant season continues through Dec. 27, but today, the likelihood of finding wild ones in California is slim. Finding them in huntable numbers is nearly impossible, especially on public ground.
Take Gray Lodge Wildlife Area around Gridley, for instance. Once a known hotbed for wild pheasant hunting and which housed nearly 2,000 birds, its numbers have dwindled to less than 200.
Sadly, the trend at Gray Lodge is not an isolated one. According to recent California Department of Fish and Wildlife surveys, almost 67,000 fewer wild pheasants were bagged in 2010 than in 2001. Harvest numbers for ducks, by contrast, are up nearly 700,000, geese another 147,000 during that same time span.
Scott Gardner, supervisor of CDFW’s Upland Game Program, admits California’s wild pheasant population is in a “tremendous decline” and “not going to be what it was.’’ Reasons for the decline are numerous, and Gardner cites these primary culprits:
* Loss of habitat. Birds need cover and food to survive and repopulate. Habitat is disappearing across the state at an alarming rate. Growing metropolitan areas are turning wild fields into parking lots, apartment complexes and shopping malls.
Farmers, too, have become a factor. They’re now stunningly efficient at their craft. Thanks to modern equipment and scientific practices, they waste very little seed or water and leave even less riparian habitat, which is crucial to pheasant survival.
“It’s hard to blame farmers in an era when they have to watch every drop of water,” Gardner said. “That’s understandable.”
* Changing habitat.
“We’ve gone from great wetlands to emerging forests,” Gardner said. “That’s not good for pheasant populations. Look at South Dakota; there’s not many trees there. Our upland component is disappearing more and more.”
Trees also provide additional habitat for birds of prey.
* Drought. Lack of water means lack of moist habitat, which is vital to insect growth, which in turn is critical to chick survival. “Chicks are highly dependent on insects,’’ said Pheasants Forever Western Region manager Dan Connelly.
* Pesticides. Today’s pesticides are shockingly effective, which is good news for people but not so much for pheasants. The spraying of mosquitoes for the West Nile virus, for example, is so widespread and deadly that millions of untargeted insects are also destroyed in addition to the pesky mosquito. Those same insects could provide food for pheasant chicks.
* Predators and birds of prey. Pheasant nests and chicks face myriad predators on the ground and in the air. Coyotes, skunks and foxes raid nests at a staggering rate, gobbling eggs and harassing both young and adult birds. Crows, ravens and hawks attack from above.
“Raptors have increased tremendously in California, especially ravens,” Connelly said. “They love eggs.”
NO EASY SOLUTIONS
What is being done to combat such issues? Some say not enough.
Tom Page, president of the Chico chapter of Pheasants Forever, lays at least part of the blame on CDFW.
“The department isn’t listening to its biologists,” said Page, whose chapter is in its second year of existence. “They only care about writing tickets. They’re not really concerned about the animals. They couldn’t care less about pheasants.”
Page said Pheasants Forever has been purchasing land and planting native grasses and vegetation in order to help revive habitat and thus aid the birds. “Like they have in the Midwest,” he added.
Connelly believes the department is giving an honest effort but has other issues that also take time and money.
“They have more and more demands, and sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease,’’ he said. “They’re doing as good a job as they can, considering the circumstances. Right now we’re in the middle of one of the largest research programs ever; that’s been ongoing for the last three years. There are some big things coming that may provide more money, and there may be more opportunities.”
“There has to be some kind of change in the landscape, some change in thinking,” added Connelly.
CDFW’s Gardner said the pheasant decline is of prime concern to him and the department. He cites a meeting six months ago at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area that included Pheasants Forever, the U.S. Geological Survey, and several upland bird experts as a formidable ally of the beloved ringneck. Gardner said money generated from the sale of Upland Game Bird Stamps also is being used to fund pheasant-population studies and projects.
“We’ve had quite an effort looking into it,’’ Gardner said. “We brought out experts from South Dakota with 20 years experience. There’s not a lot we’re going to be able to do, though. We’re probably not going to have the pheasant populations we used to have. I hate to say that, but it’s true.”