This hasn’t happened in decades.
At least not in Pennsylvania.
For two days in November, hunters will pursue truly wild pheasants — born and raised in Pennsylvania farmland — for a hunt that is both historic and symbolic.
Ring-necked pheasants, which are native to Asia, were first stocked in Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. The birds thrived in the state’s agricultural areas and quickly became one of the most popular small game species.
Wild pheasant populations continued to grow through the 1960s and peaked in the early 1970s. However, changing agricultural practices, land development and re-forestation led to a decline of wild pheasants throughout the state. By the end of the 20th century, it was unknown if viable wild populations still existed.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission continued to raise and release game-farm pheasants, but hunters still longed for the glory days of hunting wild birds. The agency searched for solutions, including investigating whether a wild breeding population of pheasants could be restored.
In one area of Northumberland, Montour and Columbia counties, that goal has been achieved with the Wild Pheasant Recovery Area program. Under the program, areas comprising at least 10,000 acres of pheasant habitat — places with overgrown farm fields — were stocked with wild birds that were trapped in South Dakota.
The Game Commission established four WPRAs in the state, and the Central Susquehanna WPRA experienced the most significant wild pheasant population increase since 992 wild-trapped birds were released from 2007 to 2009.
Today, the wild pheasants have established a population that will afford a limited hunting opportunity. The PGC held a drawing on Friday for 48 permits allotted to youth hunters to pursue the wild birds on Nov. 4 and Nov. 11.
Tom Keller, a wildlife biologist and the Wild Pheasant Recovery Area and Bobwhite Quail Focus Area coordinator for the PGC, said the upcoming hunt is a major milestone for the reintroduction of wild pheasants into the state.
“It’s a big deal,” Keller said. “It’s been a long road to get to this point. The loss of wild pheasants has been pretty detrimental to pheasant hunting, and restoring them was a major objective among sportsmen.”
According to Keller, habitat is the driving force behind the success of any WPRA. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays landowners to conserve and enhance their land for wildlife, has resulted in large expanses of pheasant habitat in the Central Susquehanna WPRA, totalling 36,000 acres.
Keller said Pheasants Forever has been a key partner for getting acreage enrolled in CREP, and as long habitat is available, he said the wild pheasant population can continue to grow.
Through annual flushing surveys and spring crowing counts, Keller said the wild pheasant population in the Central Susquehanna WPRA has been abundant.
“It has done the best out of all the WPRAs,” he said. “As the population grows, you have birds looking for new territories. We hoped any available habitat would be utilized, and we saw that in the Central Susquehanna WPRA.”
Keller said wild pheasant densities aren’t as high as areas stocked with game farm pheasants, but the numbers in several areas are strong. During the winter flushing surveys this year, 180 wild pheasants were flushed on three farms in three hours, he said.
The youth hunt, which will have a limit of one male pheasant per hunter, will have no impact on the population, Keller said. Pheasant hunting has not been allowed in any of the existing WPRAs since the program began in 2007. And while the wild birds have never been hunted before, Keller said they will present a challenge.
“They won’t sit. They like to run and fly out at the end of the field,” he said. “They’re very cagey, and that’s part of what allows them to survive. It’s certainly going to be a fun challenge to hunt them.”
More than 200 applied for the hunt and 48 permits will be awarded to junior hunters between the ages of 12 and 16. Successful applicants will be assigned one Saturday hunt date and each hunter will be paired with a mentor from the Central Susquehanna Chapter of Pheasants Forever.
As far as holding the youth hunt annually or expanding wild pheasant hunting opportunities, Keller said that hasn’t been decided.
“As long as the population remains stable or increases, perhaps we could do this yearly,” he said. “We want to bring back wild pheasant hunting in Pennsylvania. It’s really an important tradition in the state.”