Connecticut Post (Sunday)

The game birds we pay to bring to the state

- Contact Robert Miller at earthmatte­ ROBERT MILLER

Ring-necked pheasants — that most elegant of game birds — are here for a season or two, then gone, only to be trucked back in and hunted anew by humans with guns and creatures with fang and bloody claw.

They are an oddity — both a non-native and noninvasiv­e species.

When people have brought European birds to North America — starlings, house sparrows, mute swans — they’ve taken off.

But despite a century of trying, the pheasant’s never put down roots.

“They do breed here occasional­ly — I’ve flushed 10 pheasants off a nest,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticu­t Audubon Society. “But it’s not really good habitat for them here.”

But hunters like them — they say “Fall Hunting” for a lot of people. So every year, the state Department of Energy and Environmen­tal Protection releases about 20,000 farm-raised pheasants into the wild.

DEEP wildlife biologist Laurie Fortin said hunters will shoot 50-60 percent of these birds. The rest will last into the winter, only to be game for coyote, bobcat, hawks or owls — pheasant under sky or bush, rather than under glass. A few may straggle into spring.

Fortin said the state began releasing pheasants in 1899. Through the 1960s, there was hope they’d eventually be a self-sustaining breeding population. That never happened. “It didn’t work out, in Connecticu­t or in all of New England,” Fortin said.

The reason is this: they don’t belong here.

Ring-necked pheasants are originally from Asia. They’re very striking, with iridescent red faces and green necks, a white neck ring, russet plumage and long tails. They’re ground birds that run, then take off into the air in a long diagonal flight.

Sportsmen have been stocking them in North America since the 19th century. Comins said there are now self-sustaining flocks in the Midwest.

“They’re a plains-type of bird,’’ he said.

But the plains of Connecticu­t — the 19th century farm fields — are long gone, mostly grown back to woods.

That change has also largely extirpated a native game bird — the bobwhite quail.

They used to be common in Connecticu­t. But the loss of habitat — open fields mixed with brush for cover — made bobwhites go away. If there are any, they’re raised and released for hunting.

Comins said they’re also being routed in other places, replaced by southern quail species.

“Bobwhite quail are at global risk for extinction,” he said.

Another Connecticu­t game bird — the ruffed grouse — is also constraine­d by habitat loss.

Grouse like brush lots – what’s called early succession forest. But Connecticu­t’s woods are largely older, mature forests.

“We have 60 percent of the state in forest,” said DEEP wildlife biologist Mike Gregonis. “But only 2 to 3 percent of that is in young forest.’’

But ruffed grouse can repopulate a space quickly, given the chance. Comins said. While they have a short life span — two or three years, tops — the hens have lots of chicks per litter.

“It’s a live-fast-and-dieyoung life,” Comins said.

Which leaves the one great Connecticu­t game bird success story — wild turkeys.

Turkeys like the woods which were cut down in the 19th century. Combined with over-hunting, they were gone from the state.

But, the DEEP began releasing wild turkeys in the state in 1975. Once here, they bred and bred again. Now there are tens of thousands of them strutting around.

“I can remember when I had to go to Goshen to see wild turkeys,” Comins said. “Now you can see them in Bridgeport. They’re outpacing the predators and the hunters.’’

Which has never happened with ring-necked pheasants. We have to pay for them.

The DEEP’s Fortin said each pheasant the state stocks costs about $13 to $14. With 20,000 birds a year, that’s $260,000 to $280,000 a season.

Fortin said the state’s share of the Pittman-Robertson Act — the federal programs that raises funds for wildlife conservati­on programs by taxing firearm and ammunition sales — now pays for part of the pheasant purchases.

State hunters also pay $19 for a basic hunting license and $28 for a resident game bird conservati­on stamp if they’re hunting them. That money goes for buying pheasants as well, Fortin said.

But there’s another species in decline: hunters themselves.

The DEEP’s Gregonis said fewer people get hunting licenses every year. Those that do, he said, are mostly in their 50s and older.

City kids, suburban kids, know games. But not game, or hunting it.

“It’s a lot of things,” Gregonis said. “It’s changing lifestyles.”

 ?? Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo ?? A wild turkey walks through the courtyard outside the Stamford Advocate office in 2017.
Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo A wild turkey walks through the courtyard outside the Stamford Advocate office in 2017.
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