The Alberta Conservation Society partners with 4-H in a pheasant raising project to teach members about animal care and stewardship
A resuscitated pheasant project provides an early introduction to conservation for 4-Hers while offering an alternative to traditional club activities.
Rearing and releasing pheasants was popular in Alberta in the 1970s but took on new life recently through a partnership with the Alberta Conservation Society.
The society supplies day old hens to 4-Hers, who care for them from May until they are released in August. It also supplies materials such as netting and waterers.
It’s a summer vacation project that means daily chores for siblings Hunter, 14, Chase, 12, and Ryeanna, 9, Jones of the Medicine Hat 4-H Beef Club.
They characterized pheasants as flighty birds that prefer to hide than be out in the open and are often their own worst enemy.
“They’re not smart,” said Chase.
“They’ll run into a wall when they get scared and fly and hit a window. They’re really fidgety. They don’t like fast movement. As soon as you move, they start getting scared.”
There are other challenges in keeping the birds alive, they say.
“Sometimes they die when young. They get stressed and lay down and die,” said Chase.
Pheasants, which are native to Asia, need a warm habitat, especially when young.
Chicks are trained to find their food by placing it on their beaks and dipping their beaks into a water source. The Jones family tried using blinders to keep the aggressive males from pecking each other, but that prevented some from finding their food.
This year, the 4-Hers are instead opting for branches in the coops to keep the birds preoccupied with a distraction.
Ryeanna enjoys cuddling the young ones.
“I like watching them and see how they play with each other,” she said. “Seeing them grow is quite awesome.”
For the Jones brothers, who have worked on beef projects in the past, pheasants are a manageable activity on their acreage.
Release sites must be chosen based on the availability of food and water appropriate for the birds, said Hunter.
Blair Seward, a wildlife biologist with the conservation society, said there are no surveys to track the birds.
“Anecdotally, they do quite well where they are released,” he said.
“They have a high mortality rate, but one hen can reproduce eight to 10 times in a nest, so it doesn’t take long to recoup losses.”
Seward said the birds thrive in edge habitats such as shelter belts.
“The biggest limiting factor is overwinter cover,” he said, citing cattails and bushy marsh grasses as ideal thermal protection.
The benefit of the pheasant project to young people is in getting them thinking about habitat and animals.
“These are the people who will work with us in future. We realize these kids one day will be the stewards of the land and take over the farms and ranches,” he said.
“For us to have an opportunity before they hit that stage, there’s a lot of value in that.”
Ginny Smith, 4-H Alberta specialist for the southern region, said the project is another way for 4-Hers to be leaders.
“The 4-H program teaches kids to be better citizens in society.”
She said the project attracts young people looking for something different from 4-H.
“It appeals to those who are not livestock oriented and like the outdoors and are concerned about the environment,” said Smith.
She called pheasants beautiful but also cannibalistic and fragile.
“They seem to bump themselves off easily and pile into the corners,” she said.
4-Hers receive training in how to care and provide an appropriate habitat for these challenging birds, she added.
The chicks come from a Wisconsin hatchery because there is no longer one in Alberta.
The society will buy up to 75 birds from members for $10 each.
Most are released to repopulate a specific area, but males are released for hunters in the more severe climate of the Peace region.
Ninety-one Alberta 4-Hers are raising more than 9,000 birds in the pheasant project this year.
The Hays 4-H Club revived the program a few years ago, and it has since expanded to clubs around the province. Smith hopes to see up to 100 members raising 10,000 birds for Alberta 4-H’s centennial year next year.