The year I turned 12 I got my first hunting license. It was my first chance to hunt ring-necked pheasants. My father brought birds home every fall, and I wanted to join the hunt.
My dad taught me to shoot with a used, single-shot, 12-gauge shotgun. It was a lot of gun for a kid, but on opening day I was ready. I got my first cock bird that year.
Though the meat was delicious, my trophy was the bird's central tail feathers. They measured almost 2 feet long, and I wore them proudly on my hunting cap.
Looking back, the ring-necked pheasant was my "spark bird." That's the species birders credit with hooking them on birds and birding. It was the most beautiful bird in my "Birds: A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds" (Golden), and in life the red face and white ring neck were stunning.
In southeastern Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s, pheasants were common. The annual statewide pheasant harvest approached a million birds, according to state Game Commission statistics.
In the spring, I could hear the explosive crow of cock birds from my backyard. My dad and I would search for nests along fence rows and country roads. Ten to 12 eggs were typical, and after the 24-day incubation period we often saw hens with chicks.
Those were the good old days. Today pheasant numbers have declined precipitously across the state. If it weren't for the Game Commission's stocking program, they just might disappear completely. Breeding bird survey numbers dating back to 1965 confirm this trend.
Some blame suburbanization, loss of farmland habitat, intensive agriculture and increased use of pesticides and fertilizers for the pheasant's decline.
Another important factor is winterkill. Pheasants can't survive hard winters if quality winter habitat is in short supply. Frigid snowy winters in 1977 and 1978 followed by a big blizzard in March 1993 took heavy tolls on wild pheasants. They never completely recovered, and perhaps never will. And that's a shame because there's no more stirring sound than a rooster crowing in spring and no more beautiful bird than a male ring-necked pheasant in breeding plumage.
Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 WMNY-AM (Pittsburgh). Contact: http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.