NORTHUMBERLAND COUNTY — Lynn Appelman and Colleen DeLong stood over a field of switchgrass and watched a flurry of action.
Before them, dozens of wild male pheasants — highlighted with bright red cheeks and long tails — flapped and flew in and out of the switchgrass, chasing each other as they attempted to establish crowing territories for the spring mating season.
But Appelman, president of the Central Susquehanna Chapter of Pheasants Forever, and DeLong, a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, did more than watch.
They also listened.
From April 20 to May 24, Appelman and DeLong, along with other aides and volunteers, traverse the farmlands of Columbia, Montour and Northumberland counties listening for the cackling of male pheasants. The crowing surveys are conducted in the Central Susquehanna Wild Pheasant Recovery Area and the work indicates the density of male pheasants in the area.
The results of the crowing survey are coupled with the findings of flushing surveys that are conducted in the winter.
“Putting both surveys together gives us the hen densities, which is the ultimate measure of the wild pheasant program,” DeLong said.
Judging by the symphony of cackles that reverberated across the hills of switchgrass and cropland last Friday, things are looking good in the Central Susquehanna WPRA.
On Appelman’s route, for example, he spends several mornings each week driving a nine-mile stretch of country road stopping at 10 locations to listen for roosters. So far this year Appelman has heard more than 140 male pheasants along the route, more than double the previous high of 55 set last year.
“On that particular route it’s safe to assume the numbers went up,” he said. “An easy winter is the biggest reason.”
The crowing survey is broken up into four parts. The roadside routes, which Appelman drives, calls for one stop every mile to listen for three minutes before moving on.
To avoid missing areas that hold wild pheasants but aren’t accessible by road, the biologists also conduct random point surveys over the entire WPRA. DeLong said the PGC hired nine seasonal biologists for the job, which entails hiking out to randomly selected locations and listening for pheasants.
The detection survey involves walking a distance away from a cackling pheasant until it is no longer audible. This survey identifies how far out a pheasant can be heard and how often it crows in a three minute period. In the hilly farmlands of the Central Susquehanna WPRA, DeLong said a pheasant cackle can typically be heard up to a quarter-mile away.
Although the final results won’t be calculated until later this summer, DeLong is encouraged with the early returns.
“Lynn is getting birds more consistently at every stop. We didn’t have that years ago,” she said.
The Wild Pheasant Recovery Program began seven years ago when, for the first three years, the PGC transported wild pheasants from western states and released them in areas with suitable habitat. Pheasants Forever also aided the effort in several ways, including planting fields of switchgrass and other species to provide pheasants with food and nesting cover.
There are four WPRA’s in the state and they are all closed to pheasant hunting while the studies continue. The goal is to eventually open the areas up to hunting so hunters can once again pursue wild pheasants. When that will happen, however, isn’t known.
The PGC board granted a one-year extension for the Central Susquehanna WPRA, giving biologists more time to monitor populations and collect data before considering whether or not to allow hunting on a limited basis.
Appelman said it’s best to wait too long than open the area up too soon.
“When they reopen this area, if they have small numbers of birds people will be disappointed,” he said. “There are high numbers of birds, but they’re localized in pockets and a lot are on private ground. Open it early before the numbers can disperse into other areas and you’ll have a lot of disgruntled hunters.”
Appelman said the weather plays a big role in how active and vocal male pheasants are. Mornings with fog, rain or wind make things pretty quiet, he said, while days that are calm and clear with low humidity make the pheasants more vocal.
“Weekends are good to because there’s less road noise,” Appelman said.
The crowing surveys are done in the spring because male pheasants call to attract potential mates. It’s similar to a turkey gobbling in the spring to attract hens, DeLong said, and there is plenty to hear in the Central Susquehanna WPRA.
“This WPRA has been the best one in the state, but it’s also the oldest and has the best habitat,” she said. “The birds had more time to establish here and all the pheasants we are seeing now were hatched in the wild right here.”
Appelman and DeLong spent another half hour watching the bevy of pheasant activity in the switchgrass field before moving on to check another location. Before leaving, Appelman marveled at the importance of habitat for the entire program.
“If half of the fields in this area looked like this one, we’d have thousands of wild pheasants,” he said. “Switchgrass provides good winter and nesting cover - the two things we need. And when you have it like it is here, this place is just like South Dakota.”