Mid-Atlantic Pheasant & Quail

Mid-Atlantic Pheasant & Quail

Here's the latest on upland bird hunting in Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware. Some decent hunting still exists in our states, but you've got to know where to find it. (December 2007)

Photo by Gary Lewis.

Pheasant and quail populations along the East Coast, especially in the Mid-Atlantic states, have been on the decline for several decades. These birds, once the mainstay of small-game wingshooting, have taken a beating from the developmental sprawl that has overtaken Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.

Likewise, modern methods of farming, and the use of herbicides to protect crops, have caused a drop in the pheasant and quail reproduction, which has also caused further damage to the birds' numbers.

If you add in the increase in predators that prey on the birds, such as foxes, coyotes and even feral cats, along with weasels, raccoons and other small animals that dine on the bird's eggs, it's not hard to understand why quail and pheasant populations have declined over the last 30 years.

However, there is hope. Faced with declining populations, fish and wildlife departments in many states have stabilized the populations of game birds through habitat improvement programs, bird stocking and other sound wildlife management practices.

Delaware and Maryland chose to try and improve habitat, as well as improve breeding conditions, allowing the birds to rebuild naturally. New Jersey, on the other hand, has been stocking farm-raised birds on public lands for hunters for decades, while also trying to protect and rebuild the bird's habitat. This has given bird hunters in the Garden State a steady supply of birds to hunt.

While both methods have realized some moderate success, the respective states have stabilized the bird populations at best, but have not increased the pheasant and quail populations to any significant degree. Current trends in all three states have shown a steady decline from the 1980s through the end of the 1990s.

Healthy fish and game populations are a positive sign of a healthy environment. As such, many states are finally realizing the wisdom of maintaining and rebuilding wildlife habitat and in the process, restoring the balance between man and nature. This has opened up a lot of new funding for wildlife habit conservation.

While both quail and pheasant populations are not yet out of the woods, stabilization is the first step in their future recovery.

MARYLAND'S UPLAND GAME BIRDS

At one time, bobwhite quail and ring-necked pheasants were the primary targets of upland bird hunters in Maryland. During the last couple of decades, however, these birds have seen significant declines in their populations. Likewise, the numbers of hunters also decreased over that period, but have seemingly leveled off in the last five years.

Information on quail and pheasant population trends comes from two sources. The Breeding Bird Survey, coordinated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), estimates the population trends of quail and pheasants, also monitoring the status of many other birds.

The other resource is the Maryland hunter mail survey, which is used to monitor trends in game harvest, number of hunters, and days spent hunting. This survey is based on a random sampling of hunting-license buyers in Maryland.

The Breeding Bird Survey shows a decline of nearly 5 percent per year in the quail population since the mid- 1960s, and an even sharper decline in pheasant numbers. Both populations have been reduced by nearly 90 percent in the last four decades, with quail populations in the central and western parts of the state showing the biggest declines.

Maryland quail hunters downed 4,000 birds during the 2004-05 season, the most recent season that statistics are available. Current trends in the pheasant harvest show about the same number of birds taken over each of the last few seasons.

Biologists cite a combination of factors for the decline, including habitat loss and fragmentation, which have the biggest impact on quail and pheasant populations.

Habitat problems are one of the factors at the root of the pheasant and quail decline in Maryland. More efficient farming, loss of habitat due to development and insect control all combine to reduce quality habitat for the birds, concentrating them into smaller and smaller areas and making the birds and their eggs a lot easier for predators to get at.

Research shows that about 5,000 acres are necessary to sustain a viable, healthy quail or pheasant population. At certain times of year, quail need to be able to disperse to breed with and interact with other coveys, and smaller parcels of land don't allow for that.

LANDOWNER HABITAT INCENTIVES

To try and stem the decline in the quail and pheasant populations, the state uses several different landowner incentive programs.

The Federal Farm Bill of 1996 authorized the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and then re-authorized it in 2002. The CRP provides financial incentives to remove agricultural lands from production.

The CRP has a dual objective of protecting water quality and providing wildlife habitat. After enrolling their acreage in the CRP, landowners receive annual compensation for the life of the contract. Sign-up bonuses and other incentives are also provided, depending on the type of enrollment.

Research has shown that the edges of a crop field are typically the field's least productive portion. Under the program, farmers receive supplemental income on their marginal lands, and quail habitat is created.

Many of the buffers are planted in native warm-season grasses, providing abundant nesting and brood-rearing habitat for upland birds. By the end of 2005, over 70,000 acres of agricultural land in Maryland had been converted to grass buffers or riparian forest buffers.

Over 40,000 acres of linear buffers have been planted on the Eastern Shore -- traditionally the portion of the state that holds the best bobwhite populations. This has helped give existing quail populations a means of moving and mingling, thus giving the birds a better reproduction base.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started a new CRP practice called "Bobwhite Buffers." It specifically targets bobwhite quail and their habitat. If and when it is put in widespread use, the initiative has the potential to restore thousands of acres of habitat and could be the key to reversing the quail population declin

e.

Enrollment in the Bobwhite Buffers program is completely voluntary. It requires the landowner to establish a 35- to 120-foot buffer of planted or native vegetation around the perimeter of enrolled crop fields. In return, the landowner or farmer receives annual rental payments for the life of the 10-year contract.

Research has shown that the edges of a crop field are typically the field's least productive portion. Under the program, farmers receive supplemental income on their marginal lands, and quail habitat is created. This not only helps the birds, but also gives landowners a way of protecting their land for future generations.

The Bobwhite Buffers program is capped at 2,100 acres in Maryland. As a result, the program's efforts are being centered in areas with the greatest potential to provide for quail habitat needs, which are Dorchester, Queen Anne's, Kent, Talbot, Caroline, Wicomico, Somerset, Charles, St. Mary's, Worcester, and Calvert counties. The programs we mentioned are a no-lose situation, giving the landowners all the options they need to make their property ideal for quail and other wildlife while maintaining crop production -- and getting a stipend for their efforts as well.

NEW JERSEY PHEASANTS & QUAIL

In recent years, pheasant hunting in the Garden State has seen some real ups and downs. Native pheasants were once commonplace in and around the plentiful farm fields of New Jersey. Over the last couple of decades, however, stocked birds have become the norm, as more and more habitat is lost to development.

Native birds are now a rarity in the state. There is natural reproduction in some places, but by and large, pheasant hunting in New Jersey is dependent on the state's stocking program.

Even though some areas of the New Jersey have limited pheasant and quail reproduction, the number of wild birds produced cannot support a yearly hunting season. According to biologists, most of the native quail reproduction occurs in the southern reaches of the state. Pheasants that are stocked and survive the hunting season will sometimes breed with each other or native birds, and this produces a limited number of naturally reproduced birds as well.

Most of New Jersey's pheasant hunting takes place on wildlife management areas (WMAs), which are stocked with farm-raised birds. The state also stocks several WMAs with birds for dog training. New Jersey has about 20,000 small-game hunters, whose numbers have leveled off over the last several years.

Pheasants are the primary game bird being stocked on most of the 300,000-plus acres of land now in the WMA program, which is overseen by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). Some of the WMAs also have a limited amount of native bird reproduction, especially in the southern portion of the state.

Quail are stocked on only two WMAs, Greenwood and Peaslee. Both are specifically managed for quail and have hedgerows, planted grasses and crops,

as well as buffer zones.

Quail are stocked on only two WMAs, Greenwood and Peaslee. Both are specifically managed for quail and have hedgerows, planted grasses and crops, as well as buffer zones. There has been a limited amount of natural reproduction in both WMAs, but neither is capable of sustaining a natural population -- making stocking a necessity.

Originally, pheasant stocking was used as a tool to beef up native populations, which were very good until the mid-1970s. As more and more prime farmland and fields were developed, the native pheasants began a steady and rapid decline. By the mid-1980s, pheasant hunting in New Jersey became increasingly dependent on stocked birds. Pheasant hunting has now become a put-and-take situation in most parts of the state.

Garden State pheasant hunters have the excellent facilities and staff of the Rockport Pheasant Farm, just outside of Hackettstown in Warren County, to thank for the good pheasant and quail hunting they enjoy. The state also stocks several WMAs with birds for dog training. The 492-acre facility currently produces 55,000 to 60,000 ring-necked pheasants each year.

Every year, wildlife personnel at the farm take 10 male birds for every 100 females (approximately 270 cock birds and 2,700 hens) and place them in the breeding yards.

Their mating results in approximately 130,000 to 140,000 eggs being laid between mid-March and the beginning of July. These eggs are collected three times a day by DFW personnel and taken to the egg room, which is maintained at 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

There, the eggs are disinfected, sorted, put in trays and kept dormant until they are moved into incubators, where they take 24 days to hatch. After hatching, the chicks are moved to brooder rooms where they stay for six weeks. They are then moved outdoors to the 30-plus acres of range pens until fall.

The pens are planted in a cover crop of sorghum to provide the birds with protection from the weather. In the pens, the male pheasants will reach 2.5 to 3 pounds, females about 1.5 pounds before they are released onto the WMAs.

New Jersey is one of the most densely populated states in the country, and its terrain offers sharp contrasts. In the northeastern and central portion of the state, big cities and urban areas, covered with miles of asphalt, shopping malls and parking lots give way to the sparsely populated mountainous northwestern part of the "Garden" State, and the flat, sandy-soiled Pine Barrens and farmlands of the southern reaches.

Even with all the development that's taken place over the last 40 years, New Jersey has managed to protect whole tracts of wild areas. Today, these areas provide some of the best hunting found in the state.

To decide which WMAs will receive birds and how many are stocked, wildlife biologists use several criteria. The prime consideration is accessibility, but the biologists also consider available habitat and the sizes of the different WMAs.

Although most of the larger wildlife management areas are found in the southern portion of the state, those in the north are accessible to a greater number of hunters. Northern WMAs generally have better habitat, which in turn, generates a higher holdover ratio, providing hunters better hunting opportunities throughout the season.

But WMAs are not Jersey bird hunters' only option. While hunting clubs have declined in the state in recent years, a fair number of them still stock birds on private land. The main drawback to this type of hunting is the cost of belonging to a club.

Another option is to hunt a "Pay to Shoot," preserve. Here, too, expense is a major concern. However, the numbers of this type of hunting facility have grown in recent years, and in this fast-paced world, more and more bird hunters are choosing this option.

DELAWARE BIRDS

The smallest of the three Mid-Atlantic states has never received the same attention from bird hunters that they give

the other two.

Because of the Diamond State's location, most wingshooters here target waterfowl. According to sources at the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, pheasant hunting is all but non-existent in the state. What hunting there is takes place in the eastern part of the state around the farmlands and fields found there.

There are about 1,000 to 2,000 bird hunters in Delaware. The state does not stock pheasants or quail and has no plans of doing so.

Quail are also in short supply, and while they are more plentiful than pheasants, hunting is limited at best. Here, too, the number of birds has fallen in recent years. What hunting there is takes place mainly in the eastern part of the state.

The main options that Delaware bird hunters have are the pay-to-shoot preserves that stock birds, as well as some clubs that have access to private land where they stock birds. Of the birds stocked by private shooting preserves and clubs, some find their way into the native populations. But they do not add significantly to the overall pheasant or quail populations found in the state.

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