DNR bolsters pheasants as hunt opens Saturday

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, October 19, 2013

EVANSVILLE—Brian Buenzow listened to bluegrass banjo on the radio as his Ford pickup bounced along a gravel access road just south of Evansville on Friday morning.

In the truck bed, inside wood and wire crates stacked 8 feet high, 440 ring-necked pheasants—farm-raised birds from a DNR game-bird breeding facility in Poynette—clucked and groused.

Wisconsin's pheasant hunting season starts at noon Saturday and runs through Dec. 31. Buenzow, a state Department of Natural Resources field technician, Friday morning was about to set several dozen new rooster pheasant loose in a patch of brown, scrubby state-owned grassland just east of Allen Creek.

Buenzow opened a hatch to one of the crates. A fat, corn-fed green and red rooster pheasant stood at the hatch above the truck tailgate, eying the gray, rainy sky outside. Then the bird flew.

The pheasant's long tail feathers flopped behind it as its wings beat and carried it south along the gravel lane. It crossed the road and boomeranged left beneath some power lines, then made a slow landing in a patch of big bluestem grass that stood next to a cut cornfield.  

“It's the first time that bird's ever flown higher than the top of a 4-foot-high pen,” Buenzow said. “It's learning the wind as it goes right now.”

At least it didn't fly into a power line or right into the grasp of a goshawk. Buenzow's seen that happen before as farm-raised pheasants make their first flight to freedom.

At the start of another pheasant season, Rock County hunters can look forward to more fresh-released pheasants this year to add to breeding populations already in the bush.

The DNR on Friday was releasing hundreds of the birds at the 12,000 acres of state-owned and leased grassland over six towns that include parts of the Evansville Wildlife area, the Footville Public Hunting Grounds and the Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area.

The DNR has spent time bolstering public land—most recently with key farm property acquisition planned in Avon Bottoms—with an emphasis on helping pheasant populations and improving pheasant breeding habitat, which, as Buenzow said, needs to have “fewer trees and more grass, more grass, more grass.”

Now, pheasants are abundant enough in the state's far southern region that the DNR does not stock hens in Rock County.

“It (Rock and Green counties) has become the stronghold for pheasants in the southern part of the state,” Buenzow said as he watched another half-dozen pheasants fly off to find hiding spots in the thick grass.

This year, pheasant populations at the DNR's Poynette breeding farm jumped from 50,000 birds to 75,000. Buenzow said many of those birds are being released across southern Wisconsin, which state wildlife agencies consider the far eastern portion of pheasant habitat in the Midwest.

“This effectively doubles the bird population we've got down here in Rock and Green (counties),” Buenzow said.

At least temporarily. The survival rates for pheasants in the wild is about 30 percent—maybe less for farm-raised birds, who haven't yet learned all the secrets to evade predators or hunters.

Pheasants are not native, and they're a major prey species for hawks, foxes and coyotes, which are in abundance across the southern part of the state.

Then, of course, there are hunters with their bird dogs, who'll be hitting grassland in Rock County hard over the weekend, hoping to get a first crack at a fat, farm-raised (or wild) rooster pheasant.

After a few weeks, the birds could get harder to find.

But for now, they're be plentiful enough that pheasants in the grasslands near Evansville will actually be chasing around their new, farm-fed cousins as they fight over prime territory.

“It's probably a territorial thing,” Buenzow said. “The wild birds out here like to beat up the fat, sissy kids from the farm.”  

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