“Back in the sixties and seventies when I was a kid, that was the right of passage of fall, go out with your dog and hunt pheasant or grouse or water fowl,” said Jeffrey Smith, who runs a game farm in Ithaca.
But times and interests have changed, while the small dairy farms that provided the hedgerows and drainage ditches and orchards in which pheasants once thrived are mostly gone. But there are still diehard sportsmen out there, and it is for them that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation keeps a 166-acre facility in Ithaca exclusively for incubating, hatching, brooding and raising pheasants . But it’s a big job keeping New York flush with pheasants, and even an operation as expansive as the Reynolds Game Farm can’t do it alone.
Since the early 1900s, the DEC has worked with volunteers from the general public who have agreed to raise and release pheasants onto public hunting grounds. This spring and summer, the Reynolds Game Farm, which Smith manages, is expecting to hatch and ship out between 35,000 and 40,000 day-old pheasant chicks to the likes of 4-H clubs and hunting clubs.
Raising birds is not a cheap hobby. In the early years of the program, “4-H youths” received 50 cents and later a dollar for each pheasant reared and released, but since the 1960s, the sponsor shoulders the full cost of rearing the chicks. For 25 chicks, that’s about $860, which includes building a covered run and14 pounds of feed per bird.
So why do folks volunteer to do it? “Oftentimes for a rural family it’s kind of a family experience,” said Smith. For hunters, the motivation is obviously to have game to hunt — for their dogs as much as for them.
Game bird hunting is “all about the relationship between hunter and dog,” said Smith. “If you’ve never seen a hunting dog work, it’s hard to appreciate just how intense that partnership is. For a lot of these guys it’s just about being able to take a dog out and having birds out there for their dogs to work or pursue. The harvest of a bird is kind of secondary.” Becca Tucker