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Where Are All the Pheasants?

On Patrol by Steven T. Callan

he other day a neighbor stopped by my house after two days of hunting pheasants in the Orland area. He said that he and his golden retriever, Milo, had probably walked ten miles and only flushed three birds. Knowing that I had grown up in Orland during the 1960s, and that my father had been the Orland Fish and Game warden in those days, my neighbor asked the obvious question: Where are all the pheasants?

“Pheasants were everywhere when I was a kid,” I said, breaking out an old photograph album. As we looked at a photo of my father with several pheasants he had confiscated from poachers, I began telling the story of my first pheasant hunt. I was twelve at the time, had recently passed the hunter safety exam, and my father had given me a single-shot twenty-gauge shotgun for my birthday.

former Orland Fish and Game Warden Wallace Callan, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent Bob Norris, and former Corning Fish and Game Warden Harold Erwick
From left, former Orland Fish and Game Warden Wallace Callan, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent Bob Norris, and former Corning Fish and Game Warden Harold Erwick. Three subjects were arrested for taking pheasants during closed season and for shooting from a vehicle with .22 rifles. The pheasants and rifles shown were confiscated as evidence. April, 1967. Photos courtesy of the author

It was opening day of pheasant season and a school friend had invited me to hunt on his father’s farm. Their favorite field was an almond orchard that hadn’t been mowed for some time and was overgrown with three-foot-high grass. The hunting party consisted of my friend, his father, my friend’s two grown brothers, and me. We began by forming a lateral line at one end of the orchard, each of us positioned twenty feet apart.

We hadn’t walked ten yards, when a pheasant burst into the air. I remember someone shouting, “Hen!” so we all lowered our shotguns and kept on walking. A rooster flushed a few minutes later and one of the brothers dropped it before I could shoulder my shotgun. This continued for the next hundred yards or so, until everyone in the group, except me, had killed two rooster pheasants. In an apparent attempt to continue hunting, one of the brothers tried to convince me that I had killed one of his birds. I timidly explained that I couldn’t have killed that bird, because I had yet to fire a shot.

Sacramento Valley Pheasant, Steven T. Callan, Where Have All the Pheasants Gone

Having bagged their legal limits, the others unloaded their shotguns and continued to march up the field with me. My friend’s father instructed me to get ready——several birds would probably flush when we reached the end of the orchard. I nodded that I understood, but was clearly unprepared for what happened next.

The first pheasant to flush was a hen, then two more hens, a rooster, another hen, and five or six more roosters. I turned one way, then another, not knowing which bird to shoot. A single rooster flushed right at my feet, startling the daylights out of me. With its two-foot-long tail bouncing up and down, the pheasant rose to about ten feet, twisted sideways, reversed direction and rocketed over my head. By the time I wheeled around and pulled the trigger, that wily old bird was sixty yards away and gaining altitude. Disillusioned and thoroughly embarrassed, I watched my last chance to bag a pheasant fly over the next field and glide into a corn patch a quarter mile away.

Back to my neighbor’s question: Where are all the pheasants? You might ask a biologist the same question and get a more scientific answer, but here are my thoughts. The high grass that once grew in the Sacramento Valley’s irrigation ditches is now being burned clean, eliminating preferred nesting sites for ground nesting birds like pheasants. Pesticides and modern farming methods have undoubtedly taken their toll, along with an increasing human population and the resulting loss of habitat. Many former grain and milo fields, where pheasants once flourished, are now occupied by weed-free orchards which don’t provide the food or cover pheasants require. Natural predators have always existed, but one species has dramatically increased in numbers and may be more responsible for the pheasant decline than anything else: Felis catus.

Domestic cats, feral and otherwise, kill more than a billion song birds and game birds every year, according to a recent report from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Birds that hatch on the ground, like pheasants and quail, have no chance against such an efficient predator. The only possible solution is for people to keep their pets at home, have them spayed or neutered, and above all, prevent them from becoming established in the wild.

Steven T. Callan is an award-winning writer and the author of 2013 “Book of the Year” finalist "Badges, Bears, and Eagles—The True-Life Adventures of a California Fish and Game Warden.” He is the recipient of the 2014 and 2015 “Best Outdoor Magazine Column” awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of California. Steve’s sequel, “The Game Warden’s Son,” is scheduled for release March 1, 2016.

Steve can be reached online at callan.coffeetownpress.com.

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