The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


September 28, 2013

Pheasant is a fading symbol of autumn

CAMERON — The year I turned 12 I got my first hunting license. It was my first chance to hunt ring-necked pheasants. My father brought birds home every fall, and I wanted to join the hunt.

My dad taught me to shoot with a used, single-shot, 12-gauge shotgun. It was a lot of gun for a kid, but on opening day I was ready. I got my first cock bird that year.

Though the meat was delicious, my trophy was the bird’s central tail feathers. They measured almost two feet long, and I wore them proudly on my hunting cap.

Pheasants are birds of farm country. In the spring they nest in fencerows and hayfields, and in the fall they favor harvested cornfields littered with waste grain. When spooked they usually run, but they are capable of short powerful bursts of flight. A mature rooster weighs about 2.5 pounds.

Male pheasants are impressive. The iridescent bronze body is decorated with brown and black markings. A bright white ring separates the body from the greenish head. And during the breeding season, the male’s red face screams for attention. Hens are smaller and duller. This cryptic look is perfect for the parent that incubates the eggs and raises the chicks on her own.

Looking back, the ring-necked pheasant was my “spark bird.” That’s the species birders credit with hooking them on birds and birding. It was the most beautiful bird in my “Golden Guide to Birds,” and in life the red face and white ring around the neck were stunning.

In southeastern Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s, pheasants were common. The annual statewide pheasant harvest back then approached a million birds, according to game commission statistics.

In the spring I could hear the explosive crow of cock birds from my backyard. My dad and I would search for nests along fencerows and country roads. Ten to 12 eggs were typical, and after the 24-day incubation period, we often saw hens with chicks.

Those were the good old days. Today pheasant numbers have declined precipitously in the east. If it weren’t for state sponsored stocking programs, they just might disappear completely. Breeding bird survey numbers dating back to 1965 confirm this trend.

Some blame suburbanization, loss of farmland habitat, intensive agriculture, and increased use of pesticides and fertilizers for the pheasant’s decline. Another important factor is winterkill.

Pheasants can’t survive hard winters if quality winter habitat is in short supply. Frigid snowy winters in 1977 and 1978 followed by a big blizzard in March 1993 took heavy tolls on wild pheasants. They never completely recovered, and perhaps never will. And that’s a shame because there’s no more stirring sound than a rooster crowing in spring and no more beautiful bird than a male ring-necked pheasant in breeding plumage.

Though native to Asia, pheasants have a long history in North America. The earliest attempts to introduce them to this continent date back to the 1700s. These first efforts were unsuccessful, but finally in 1881 a population was established in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Here in the east, private citizens began importing pheasants in the early 1890s. For several decades these releases helped establish the pheasant as a game bird for sport hunting.

In the early 1900s the Pennsylvania Game Commission began propagating pheasants, and the state’s first stocking took place in 1913. For several years the population fluctuated until the state imposed hunting seasons and bag limits in 1923. In 1929 Pennsylvania established two game farms and extensive propagation began.

Through the 1960s pheasants flourished in Pennsylvania, and it became a popular game bird. But in the 1970s, things changed. Agriculture became more intensive, and the use of chemicals increased. Family farms were sold to make room for housing developments, shopping malls, and parking lots. From the mid 1970s through the early 1980s, Pennsylvania, for example, lost approximately 900,000 acres of farmland to urbanization. Nearby states experienced similar habit losses.

Today only isolated, remnant populations of pheasants persist in most places. I suspect that most of the birds I occasionally see are escapees from exotic bird breeders. If I had known what the future held for pheasants back when I was a boy, I would have treasured these spectacular birds even more.

— Contact Dr. Shalaway via e-mail at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

Text Only
  • Some books for the rest of summer

    Stretching out in a hammock with a good book is a great way to relax on a warm summer afternoon. Here are a few titles that have recently caught my eye.

    July 27, 2014

  • Creating a week to remember

    After my traveling shoes were placed neatly beside the door, it was time to spend some much needed time around home.

    July 27, 2014

  • There are some changes on the way

    Hunters who have found themselves driving out of their way to check in a deer, turkey, or bear will no longer have to waste the time or gas starting in 2015. 

    July 27, 2014

  • The cure for the summertime blues: Go camping

    In case you haven’t noticed we are looking right down the gun barrel at winding down on another summer.

    July 26, 2014

  • 071714 Coda and Callie.jpg Coda and Callie’s excellent adventure

    How is it something that you profess to love so much can cause you so much anxiety and grief? No, I’m not talking about dealing with your children (or your spouse). This is worse. This is about dogs. More specifically, hunting dogs. 

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • 071314 Chris Ellis.jpg DNR’s ‘outdoor summer school’

    Attention all West Virginia hunters and trappers. It is once again time for outdoor summer school and the course materials are hot off the presses.

    July 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Meet the Eurasian collared-dove

    Back in 1974 a local pigeon fancier imported a flock of about 50 Eurasian collared-doves to the Bahamas. Ultimately he released the birds, and they took to living in the West Indies. By the late 1970s some had reached south Florida, and by the late 1980s, some had been seen in Georgia and Arkansas.

    July 13, 2014

  • July in W.Va.: Recreational opportunities abound

    It’s July in the West Virginia mountains, which brings vibrant orange tiger lilies, blooming rhododendron, and of course fireworks. Usually the heat and humidity is in full force, but so far the weather has been nice.

    July 13, 2014

  • Shotgun 101: Shoot more and live better

    “God is not on the side of big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best.”
    — Voltaire

    July 9, 2014

  • Fireflies are living lights

    At recent Fourth of July fireworks displays, spectators squealed with delight at the annual spectacle that illuminated the night sky. And I’m sure more than a few compared the spectacular pyrotechnics to the subtler displays of fireflies that punctuate backyards, parks, and campgrounds all summer long. We call these displays “nature’s fireworks.”

    July 5, 2014

Web Special Sections
  • Special Web Sections

    Click HERE for stories about natural gas and Marcellus shale gas extraction.

    Click HERE for stories about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

    Click HERE for stories about the passing of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

    Click HERE for stories from The Greenbrier Classic PGA TOUR event.

    August 6, 2010

Helium debate
AP Video
The Carbon Trap: US Exports Global Warming UN Security Council Calls for Gaza Cease-fire Traditional African Dishes Teach Healthy Eating 13 Struck by Lightning on Calif. Beach Baseball Hall of Famers Inducted Israel, Hamas Trade Fire Despite Truce in Gaza Italy's Nibali Set to Win First Tour De France Raw: Shipwrecked Concordia Completes Last Voyage Raw: Sea Turtle Hatchlings Emerge From Nest Raw: Massive Dust Storm Covers Phoenix 12-hour Cease-fire in Gaza Fighting Begins Raw: Bolivian Dancers Attempt to Break Record Raw: Israel, Palestine Supporters Rally in US Raw: Air Algerie Flight 5017 Wreckage Virginia Governor Tours Tornado Aftermath Judge Faces Heat Over Offer to Help Migrant Kids Kangaroo Goes Missing in Oklahoma More M17 Bodies Return, Sanctions on Russia Grow Raw: Deadly Tornado Hits Virginia Campground Ohio State Marching Band Chief Fired After Probe