Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
The Challenge of Finding Pheasants
October 15, 2021
By Steve Grinley
We are in the midst of waterfowl and deer hunting seasons so if you are out birding, or just taking a walk in the woods, please be sure that you are wearing orange in areas where hunting is allowed. Pheasant hunting season begins this weekend and the Wildlife Management Areas are being stocked with pheasants continuously throughout the season. Robert Ross, a birder and photographer from Newbury, shared a story from a past pheasant season and I thought that I would share it with your today:
“Every fall, Massachusetts DCR releases farm-raised ring-necked pheasants in the Martin Burns Wildlife Management Area in Newbury. A flatbed truck arrives piled high with wire crates, looking more than a bit like lobster traps. The “releasers” let the caged birds loose to seed a yearly gun hunt, more akin to a turkey shoot.
“Winged hunters show up first. Red-tails, Cooper’s, and sharped-shinned hawks arrive when the truck appears. As the cages are downloaded off the truck, each cage is opened, and 3-4 birds are shaken out of the cage. The hawks are waiting.
“The freed birds are disoriented and scared. Some will fly up into the nearest tree, usually on a low branch. Others run into the nearest cover, yet instead of instantly disappearing, they often walk right out into exposed glens and clearings.
“Their confusion is not lost on the hawks. As they follow the truck, they hop from tree to tree, staying just high enough to launch a quick attack. The pheasants never see them coming.
“These birds have no experience with predators. Their instincts are stunted. Many other animals in the Area benefit from the birds served up on a plate. Foxes, fishers, minks, weasels, and coyotes will all gladly clear up any pheasant’s uncertainties.
“The Hawks get first dibs. Walking the dirt road last fall, I saw two hawks, a Cooper’s and a red-tail fly into the trees ahead of me. I noticed the birds did not flush as I walked under them. I came around a curve and there was the truck.
“The hawks are onto you,” I said to a young woman releasing the birds.
“Yes, she said, “We already watched one grab a pheasant.”
“I pointed to the hawks. These two are next up I think.”
“She laughed. “They are patient.”
“Her partner pulled a cage down to the tailgate, opened the door, and shook out the pheasants. The prey all took different paths to escape.
“The smartest bird darted under the truck. Another flew up onto a low branch in a pine tree. A third made the fatal mistake of darting into the low brush. The Cooper’s came in just above the grass level, like a strafing fighter, coming so close to us we heard the jet-like woosh of its wings. It dove into the tall grass.
“It jumped up off its prey briefly, and feathers flew out of its claws. Then it dove back down, beak first; there was little doubt.
“Wow,” the woman said, “that was fast!”
“How many do you lose to the hawks?”
“It’s hard to know. I’ve seen them do this over and over. We had a bald eagle out here last year. They know we’re around.”
“It was fascinating to realize the birds knew the sound or sight of the truck. They followed it until it stops, likely alerted by the panicked clucks and clicks coming from the truck in a symphony of the doomed.
“I have come across the stocking several times. I have seen other hawks attack. Cooper’s and sharp-shinned attack immediately. The red-tails are more relaxed, waiting until the truck moves on. There is no rush. The pheasants are easy pickings.
“The authentic hunting experience is not easy to replicate with farmed-raised birds. Only a raised bird would fly without an immediate threat. Though there are many predators on the ground, the birds will take their chances with their foot speed and feathered camo. Yet in the air, they have little hope.
“On a hike a few days after a release, I came across a hunter and his wife hunting with two beautiful pointers. They had clearly spent a small fortune on guns, gear, and dogs. They looked like a cover of Sports Afield.
“Any luck?” I asked as the hunters grabbed their dog’s collars and pulled back to keep the friendly dogs from running to me.
“Not yet,” the man said.
“I laughed to myself. I had just passed a gorgeous male ring-necked sitting right out in the open in a tree along the road. I had too much heart to tell them.”