"Anyone who has ever hunted pheasants in Lake County sometime during the last 30 years certainly has shot some roosters born in an incubator, reared in a pen and released into the wild in late summer for the hunting season."|
So says Denny Rowley, chairman of Lake County Pro Pheasants, a pheasant restoration organization that in 2013 celebrates three decades of raising and releasing rooster and hens to increase and maintain the ringneck population in Lake and adjacent counties.
"I've made this claim for many years about Lake County hunters shooting birds raised and released through Pro Pheasants," Rowley said. "And no one argues when I tell them that in 30 years, our organization has produced more than a half-million pheasants for hunters to harvest."
In the Pro Pheasants restoration program, pheasant chicks and pheasant food are given free or at reduced prices to anyone interested in raising the birds to an age right for release into the wild. Groups such as 4-H or sportsmen's clubs, as well as hundreds of individuals, have taken on bird-raising as a project.
Raising a batch of pheasant chicks to a young adult size requires a building and outside pen where the young birds can be fed and watered daily and protected all the time from predators with fur or feathers.
Also necessary, however, is a good location to release the birds when they are mature enough to survive on their own.
"Finding a good place to let the young birds go can be the hard part," Rowley said, "because in many cases in the distant past, there has not been suitable habitat to support roosters until the hunting season or keep hens alive over the winter into the spring nesting season."
"Back in the early '80s, good habitat was hard to find, so the landowners who raised pheasants set aside some land just for the birds," he said. "Small patches of cattails, weedy drainages, tree belts and food plots just for wildlife all added up to a lot of places for the birds to go where they could survive and thrive."
"When CRP came along, thousands of pheasant-friendly ages of grass temporarily eliminated the habitat problem," he said. "Now, however, with the major cuts in CRP, and the loss of much other habitat because of high crop prices and tiling to increase production of corn and beans, we're back into the habitat problem of the early '80s.
``So, we're hoping that everyone still wants to raise pheasants and that they will provide places to put them," Rowley said. "Every piece of available cover is necessary so that thousands of roosters will be there for the hunting season and thousands of hens will be there for the next nesting season."
"Are pen-raised and liberated pheasants as good as the wild ringneck?" is a question Tim Lund is often asked. Lund is a full-time, professional pheasant producer who, on his farm west of Madison, has raised and made available for release many thousands of pheasants over the past 30 years.
"If you asked that question 30 years ago, I would have said, `no.' Hatchery-born and pen-reared pheasants might have looked the same as wild ones but they were bigger, slower runners, less wiley, and poor fliers," Lund said.
"Today's pen-raised ringnecks are much more like wild ones because of major advancements in avian genetics that have created roosters and hens that are the same size, just as likely to run and will flush and fly just like wild birds," he said.
"I've lost money the last 10 years betting with my hunting buddies that I could tell the difference between pen-raised and wild roosters," said Rick Johanson, a pheasant hunter from Tennessee who has come to Lake County for 35 pheasant seasons.
"In the old days, we saw `tame' roosters that were easy to find but hard to flush, unless you kicked them in the butt to get them off the ground, and some of them, when they did fly, would land in a tree where they would sit on a branch and bob up and down," Johanson said.
"Those days are over because these new hand-raised ringnecks are just as wild as wild birds. They run down the rows of corn stubble and race through the CRP, dry cattails and shelterbelts, then flush fast and furious in a way so much like wild birds even the most experienced hunter can't tell the difference," Johanson said.
"Anyone interested in getting young ringnecks to raise for release can call me (605-480-4444) for details on what to do," said Rowley. "Or better yet, come to the Pro Pheasants banquet March 26 at Nicky's Restaurant in Madison."
Happy hour starts at 5:30 p.m., supper is served at 6:30 p.m., and the auction begins at 7 p.m. Funds raised will go toward producing more pheasants in Lake County.