Sheridan Bird Farm Boon for Pheasant Hunting

The pheasants are riled up that morning as they darted in and out of the rows of marsh elder, lambs quarter and oats and hopped down the dirt lane toward Wyoming Game and Fish State Bird Farm Supervisor Darrell Meineke, who stood behind the chicken wire fence in his bright red shirt assessing his charges. He smiled in amusement at the dozen or so fledglings, ranging in age from three to four months, as they bumbled around like awkward teenagers, flapping their downy, brown feathers and prancing on rubbery legs.

Like curious tourists, the birds snuck peaks at Meineke around the colorful blinders that rest above their beaks like tiny, plastic sunglasses, attached through a clip on their septum much like a nose ring. It’s painless, according to Meineke, who says they don’t prevent the birds from seeing but rather help reduce their pecking accuracy should they begin to feel territorial and go for another bird’s feathers or try to bite. In other words, the blinders give birds time to duck in the event of an attack and are color coded according to age.

This helps Meineke and staff keep track of the progress of the more than 16,000 birds roaming the 17-acre farm, which is divided in sections to control population and tamp down predatory instincts over terrain.

Typically, the birds would be a lot more skittish of visitors, Meineke said, but he credits the red shirt for putting the pheasants at ease that morning.

“They see in color,” he said, “and equate red with the guy who feeds them.”

Anyone else walking up to the fence would send the birds rustling. They’re skittish in the wild, but having been raised in captivity, they’ve adapted to the staff and take Meineke’s presence in stride.

Oriental Express

It took a couple tries to successfully introduce pheasants from Asia into the United States. The first attempt was in 1733, according to Bill MacFarlane of MacFarlane Pheasants and gamebirdexpert.com. Initially, the governors of New York and New Hampshire tried to import some sickly Old English Blackneck Pheasants, which died quickly in their new habitat.

Later, in the spring of 1881, Owen Nickerson, an Oregon native and former consul general to Shanghai, China, shipped over 60 ring-necked pheasants – as well as some other Chinese birds and plants – in the dark, moldy hull of a ship enroute to Oregon. Why? He wanted to eat them.

Despite the conditions, the majority of the birds survived the trip from China to Port Townsend, Washington. The next leg of the trip, however, according to McFarland, proved to be more fatal given the rocky, bumpy roads between Washington and Oregon. The few survivors that made it were released into the lower Columbia River, where today, scientists still can’t agree over how many birds actually survived long enough to reproduce.

The next shipments in 1882 and 1884 proved to be more fruitful, officially establishing a new species of ring-neck pheasants into Oregon’s Willamette Valley and in Washington, where they also became popular sporting birds. Today, pheasants can be found in 40 of the 50 states, including Montana, California, Utah, Wyoming, and South Dakota, which even claimed the pheasant as its state bird.

The transplanted birds found perfect habitat in their new land as populations burgeoned into the tens of thousands, according to Meineke. However, as grain farming slowly receded in the wake of the end of WWII and more efficient agriculture practices went into effect, the wild pheasant populations in the area began to decline.

Fragmented Terrain

Along with fewer grain fields on which to feed, pheasants also were faced with reduced turf as the growing human population encroached on their formerly wild terrain. As Meineke points out, habitat is a multi-faceted balance including food, water, space and arrangement, and even the slightest upset in one area can dramatically alter a species’ ability to survive.

He uses local white-tail deer as an example. Prior to Coffeen Avenue, the deer had unfettered access to the terrain. Now, many perish just trying to cross the road.

Likewise, with the decrease in grain fields that formerly served as the breeding grounds for area pheasants, females struggled to hatch their eggs. Along with a 24-day nesting period, a hen also has to be able to safely avoid predators during this time, as well as keeping the young chicks safe for weeks afterward until they can fly.

“Imagine having that extra stress added to your day,” Meineke said.

In other states like Montana, pheasants are able to thrive in the more than 390,000 acres of land designated by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), where farmers are paid not to plant, to protect environmentally sensitive land. This land provides ideal nesting ground for pheasants in states with the program, but Wyoming does not offer that protection.

“It’s hard to hide under those conditions,” Meineke said, “and habitat becomes a real issue.”

Many western states took notice of the decline, and soon Wyoming started their own bird farm in the Sheridan area, specifically geared toward raising ring-neck pheasants that are not indigenous to the U.S.

The Farm

The Sheridan Bird Farm is one of two state-run facilities through the Game & Fish Department, along with the Downar Game Bird Farm near Yoder that was built in 1961. Combined, the two facilities grow and release around 30,000 birds each winter.

The Sheridan facility opened in 1935, through efforts by Game and Fish, Sheridan County Sportsman’s Club and the Work Progress Administration, who teamed together to procure farm lands and laborers.

The first pheasants were hatched in 1937 using sitting hen chickens to hatch the eggs. Given their “platter-size bottoms,” Meineke said, the chickens were able to hatch about three times as many as their more petite counterparts and also brooded the chicks as if their own.

Back then, raising pheasants was a much more arduous process requiring extensive manpower. At its peak in the late 30s, the facility had eight full-time employees on site to hatch a few thousand eggs, ensuring the future of pheasant hunting across the state.

Photo: Bud Love of Wildlife Habitat Management Area

From Shell to Sky

Before any eggs can be incubated, first they must be gathered. This means a couple of arduously long days for Meineke and staff, who walk the 17 acres every April and May in search of small brown eggs that are often hard to differentiate from the ground. By the end of a spring, Meineke has seen his fair share of eggs.

“I’m ready to do something else,” he said with a grin.

Then begins the arduous period of keeping the eggs at the perfect temperature and double-checking the equipment and back-up generators to make sure nothing goes wrong. Like a mother hen, Meineke takes his role seriously, which as he points out, their output for the entire year is under his charge.

After 25 years of managing the farm, Meineke has made a life for himself on the heavily wooded terrain tucked off Bird Farm Road surrounded by pheasants. He lives on site where – for better or worse – he can keep a vigilant eye on them and monitor behaviors, bio hazards or infections that might threaten the health of the birds.

He’s at home here, Meineke said, and admits he enjoys watching over his charges, who he describes as fun but challenging, much like teenagers. He’s protective of them and spends many hours patching the miles of wire on the enclosure to keep the scores of owls and other predators from infiltratrating the pen.

The fact that they never make it in, according to Meineke, doesn’t deter the predators’ constant attempts nor does it prevent them for setting up shop in the trees overhead.

Seeing the pheasants so energetic and healthy means they’re doing their job, Meineke said, which is to get the pheasants ready for release for hunting season in November and continuing into the third week of December. By then, the males will have molted their dreary browns into bright orange and red feathers to attract their dull brown female mates.

When it’s time, Meineke and staff personally drive the pheasants to more than a dozen areas throughout the county and northeastern portion of the state where they open each of their crates and give the birds a fling into the air.

“It’s fun seeing them fly,” he said, “and they are quite beautiful, males crowing as they go.”

More so, he appreciates the excitement of sportsmen, who love and appreciate what they do.

Unlike big game hunting that requires early mornings, long-distance hikes and the difficulty of harvesting the animal to carry back, Meineke likes that pheasant hunting offers a great alternative for new hunters, older adults and families.

“Many hunting parties are fathers, sons and daughters,” he said, “and it’s not uncommon to see pheasant hunters well into their golden years still in the field.”

For his part, he and his staff are spending these next few months getting these birds ready to fly.

Where and When Pheasants are Released

Unless otherwise specified, these areas will receive heavy pre-opening day pheasant releases up until the third week of December:

  Sheridan County WIAs 1, 2 & 6

  Ulm State Land near Wyarno

  Buffalo Run State Land off Hwy 14

  Welch Property north of Sheridan

  Johnson County WIA 9 (opens Nov. 15)

  Campbell County WIA 2

  Johnson County WIA 11

  Fort Phil Kearney HMA (hunting is only in Dec.)

  Bud Love WHMA (releases will continue until
     closing   date or heavy snows prohibit access)

  Yellowtail WHMA near Lovell

  Sand Mesa WHMA and Ocean Lake WHMA near      Riverton (stocking concludes second week in Dec.

By: Jen C. Kocher

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