Pheasant farming production has seen significant changes in the past 30 years.
Through the 1960s and '70s, state-operated farms provided brood stock to add to the population of native birds and possibly expand pheasant numbers in lower mountainous and swamp areas statewide.
Seven state farms provided birds in 1975. The John White Game Farm on Route 77 in Alabama was the main source for day-old chicks, pen-rearing projects by 4-H and other groups, and mature birds stocked during the fall hunting season.
For years, area hunters had vast tracts of pheasant-holding cover and birds were abundant. Few hunters had to go to a preserve to find heavy concentrations of birds at the start of each fall season. Preserves welcomed hunters mainly for either dog training, teaching a kid basic bird-hunting skills or a means to take a guest for some fast shooting after the first week of pheasant season.
Times have changed. Pheasant populations dwindled, Department of Environmental Conservation pheasant farm numbers decreased and private pheasant farms increased their emphasis on hunting.
Theories about the exact cause of pheasant depletion range from changes in agricultural practices to speculation about certain diseases affecting pheasants.
The DEC has gradually reduced its game farm numbers until this year it maintained just two facilities, the John White farm in Western New York and the Reynolds Farm in Ithaca. Earlier this fall, the DEC announced the closing of the White Farm. Brood stock was removed on Nov. 15.
The closing of John White is being opposed by a wide range of individuals and sporting groups. "We question the soundness of raising all pheasants in just one place in the state," said Dan Tone, game committee chairman of the Erie County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. Tone points out the closure has been opposed by the New York State Conservation Council and even the Audubon Society. He and others fear severe weather or disease could wipe out the existing stock held in only one facility.
Pheasant season in the northern part of Western New York closed on Nov. 21. Cock and hen pheasant season remains open in the Southern Tier area until Dec. 31. After that, hunters can go to a state-licensed preserve to hunt until March 30.
Like state game farms, privately run pheasant preserves have dwindled in recent years. Today, private clubs and farms buy birds to supply shooting for members and friends. Just two full-time preserves offer hunts to the general public in Western New York:
Ringneck Hunting Preserve, at 2407 Broadway in Darien Center, maintains pen areas with a capacity of 10,000 pheasants and more than 200 acres of mixed field cover.
"We've always had the open field areas seeded for commercial farming (corn and grain), but now we've added switch grass, sorghum and other field cover best for pheasant survival," said Gene Bontrager, who operates Ringneck Preserve along with his wife, Peggy. Gene retired from his "other day job" in mid-November to devote his efforts to raising pheasants and arranging hunts.
After each outing, hunters have the option of going to Bontrager's back-woods lodge to talk over the hunt and relax while the birds are being dressed for those delicacy dinners, often the main reason for the hunt.
"We also can have a dinner ready at the lodge after the hunt and are looking at possibly having a video made of each hunt," Peggy Bontrager said.
To book a hunt at Ringneck Hunting Preserve, call 547-3749.
Forrestel Farm Hunting Preserve, at 4660 Water Works Road in Medina, offers hunts for chukar and quail as well as pheasants each season.
Bill Keppler, a 30-year resident on the 580-acre farm, has seen the many changes pheasants have gone through in the past three to four decades. "I can recall seeing pheasants jumping along every other rock at sunrise," he said to Al Addesa as they stood along a stone fence on a recent hunt.
Now, raptors, bird predators and four-footed feeders (fox, coyotes, feral cats, etc.) require Keppler's constant restocking to maintain bird numbers on his farm.
"With the hot, dry summer, (natural) nesting birds enjoyed a tremendous success. Pheasants, turkeys, partridge and other ground-nesting birds should show strong population increases," Keppler said.
They have. During Addesa's outing in early November, he flushed more wild birds than those set out for the hunt.
At Forrestel Farm hunters without dogs can go out with a trained bird dog. For years, Butch and Duke, two personable golden Labrador retrievers, would hunt and retrieve for visiting hunters. Butch died earlier this year, but all marvel at the energy 10-year-old Duke shows throughout the hunt. Keppler suggests hunters run Duke in back fields before taking him into the stocked fields, "just to wear him down a bit."
Fortunately, Keppler has offspring from Butch and will have pheasant dogs to accompany hunts for many years to come. For details about Forrestel Farm hunts, call 798-9110 or 798-0222.