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Sometimes the bird gets you in upland hunt

As we entered the first field at Joseph Davis State Park, a rooster almost immediately started to cackle off to the north near some heavy brush. Joel Spring of Ransomville and I looked at each other.

“Let’s go see if we can flush that bird,” he said. “Max, Fred … go get the bird.”

The dogs – Max, a golden retriever and Fred, an English spaniel – didn’t need encouragement. Despite hunting earlier in the day, they appeared to be full of energy and excitement. They clearly love pheasant hunting. So does Spring. In fact, in 2003, Spring wrote a book about his pheasant hunting addiction called “Thursday’s Bird.” It explains a lot of things about Spring and about the overall upland bird hunting experience in Western New York.

“It started when I was 19 or 20 years old,” Spring said. “I had a dog that I never figured was a hunter and decided to take her out back behind my house. That day I shot two pheasants thanks to her and from then on, I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough of it.”

As we approached the vocal pheasant, we stalked with anticipation as the dogs worked the area. Sensing the imminent danger, the bird took off into the wind and quickly flew out of range, but not before I could take a couple long shots at the fleeting bird. He was still cackling, but it seemed more like laughing. The bird landed in even thicker cover on the far side to the south.

In the meantime, Fred and Max were still hoping to retrieve a downed bird. They looked at me with disappointing eyes, wondering what had just happened. They did their job quite admirably. We would try and relocate that bird, but there were others around, too. At least twice we heard cackles off in the distance, but we were unable to locate them … or the missed bird. We tried.

Joseph Davis State Park is one of 16 different pheasant stocking sites in Region 9. Roughly 4,700 pheasants are released in this region by the Department of Environmental Conservation through its Reynolds Game Farm in Ithaca. Birds also are stocked through the Erie and Allegany county sheriff's departments, as well as through the Day-old Chick Program coordinated with 4-H youth.

At the very least, it helps to keep alive an important tradition. These colorful birds were introduced in New York on Long Island in 1892. They became established throughout the state by the 1920s. The peak hunting years were probably the 1960s and early '70s. In 1968, it was estimated that 272,000 pheasant hunters harvested more than 500,000 birds, it had that much of an impact.

What happened?

A combination of several things put these birds into a downward spiral. One was the use of pesticides that seriously impacted natural reproduction of the birds. Loss of habitat due to changes in agricultural practices also contributed to the decline, as well as residential and commercial development into prime rural areas. Predation from hawks and owls certainly had an impact. Throw in predation from foxes and coyotes, and you can see the problem snowballing. The birds never had a chance.

As we started to arrive at the ponds in the back of the park, Fred kicked up a woodcock and Spring drew a bead on the bird with his gun. However, the elusive timberdoodle zipped his way to freedom before Spring could even click off the safety. At least Joel didn’t miss.

Joy Spring of Ransomville waiting for a flush. More women are becoming involved with upland bird hunting. (Photo courtesy Joel Spring)

One of the cool things about pheasant hunting in general is that Spring hunts with his wife, Joy, who enjoys the time outside with her husband, time with the dogs and the thrill of the flush.

“On opening day this year, we ran into two other couples out hunting at Wilson-Tuscarora State Park,” Joel Spring said. “One lady wasn’t carrying a gun, but she was still along for the hunt to watch the dogs work and enjoy nature.”

Getting more women involved with hunting is important if we want to grow this outdoor activity. Some groups like the North Forest Rod and Gun Club’s Ladies Shoot N’ Hoot Program is a perfect way to introduce them to shooting sports and serve as a steppingstone into small game hunting. You may have found another hunting partner, too.

Pheasant hunting is a perfect introduction to the pastime for hunters ages 12 to 15 years of age. That’s how many of us started out. Opening day for pheasant season was a Monday back then, and meant a day off from school. It was perfectly acceptable in the 1970s. Just like it was for the opening of deer and trout seasons. Now, all of those seasons open on a Saturday.

I can remember learning lessons the hard way, too. I would go on pheasant hunts with my dad and his hunting buddies before I could legally carry a shotgun. Instead, I would carry my trusty Daisy BB gun. Once (that’s all it took), my gun was pointed in an unsafe position for a short moment. That verbal scolding is still etched in my memory.

Max and Fred wait for their next command from Joel Spring as they take a breather from working the fields. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

Of course, there are plenty of other positive memories and lessons learned. It doesn’t seem as though 50 years have gone by since my first pheasant hunting experience behind our house in Cambria. There’s nothing like having a rooster scurry at your feet, scaring you into action and following through on a clean hit. Dinner with a fresh pheasant is mouthwatering, especially when you have a mother that specializes in cooking wild game.

The state’s DEC has a management plan for ring-necked pheasants that will end in 2020. It will be interesting to see where the agency will go with this moving forward. Let’s hope there’s enough support from the hunting community to keep this program moving forward for at least another 10 years.

The dogs were hot and tired, we could tell. As we made it back to the end of the field and our vehicle, I stopped to listen. As if on cue, a pheasant cackled off in the distance. There will be another day this year. Next time he won’t be so lucky.

I hope.

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