Rhode Island’s Historic Farm-Raised Pheasant Stocking Program Provides Hunters with Game
December 19, 2021
Their plumage shimmers iridescent blue, green, and gold in headlamp light. I push the cage door in and five heads rock toward me, dark eyes socked in red velvet.
The five crowd close to the entrance, calm and questioning in the cold night. I wrap my gloved hands around the breast of one and gently pull him from the cage into open air. His speckled tail and bobbing neck clear the door before it snaps shut. I clutch him close to my side, one wing under my right palm the other tucked against my threadbare grey fleece.
I take two steps down the dirt road heading for starlit grasses. The pheasant dips his head. His body hums. In a second, I am holding a torrent of raging wind. Wings beating the air. Legs pushing against my abdomen. Head pulling forward ready for flight.
He has slipped his wings from my careful grip. I hold his body aloft and duck my head.
“Shit,” I think, or maybe say aloud. I have to let go.
Then he quiets. His wings fold. I press him again to my side, slip one hand over his wing.
Good, Alex Fish says. Sometimes all you can do is let their wings go and try to hold on. There are always some that get away.
The male ring-necked pheasant nods silent at the moon as I move quickly for a cluster of tall, frosted grasses. It will offer some protection from predators — coyotes, owls, hawks, and maybe foxes — during the night and keep him safe until morning.
Until the hunt begins.
Fish, the upland game bird biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and I are out on a mission to stock the wildlands of Rhode Island with 165 ring-necked pheasants.
Or rather, Fish is on a mission — I’m playing the part of clumsy sidekick. My grip is unsteady; my gloves catch on the crates. I trap more than a few feathers in the swinging door, and release more than a few pheasants prematurely. One springs up to a thin branch that bows under his weight, better suited for a 3-ounce meadowlark than a 3-pound pheasant. One escapes my grasp, climbs my arm and sits happily on my shoulder. She and I walk into the field a strange pair — a grassland pirate and a chunky, autumn-hued parrot — before I stoop awkwardly, and she flaps into the brush.
It is a mission that Fish typically carries out alone and under the cover of darkness. Once the sun goes down the pheasants are calmer and easier to handle. But nightfall also means less risk of hunters figuring out DEM’s exact stocking locations and gaming the system. Keeping this secret makes for a more “wild hunting experience,” Fish says. For the same reason, stocking volunteers aren’t typically allowed.
So two nights a week from October to December, Fish heads out solo in a black pickup loaded down with 30 cages, five pheasants each. Males stacked on one side. Tawny, speckled hens on the other.
Tonight, on the evening before Thanksgiving, 165 pheasants sit in the truck bed. They are destined for the Arcadia Management Area and Nicholas Farm Management Area, where they will be released in twos or fours to more than two dozen different patches of meadow.
Three other crews are making similar trips this evening in prep for a busy Thanksgiving morning hunt. By dawn, more than 500 pheasants will be spread out at 11 management areas across the state. Apart from opening day — Oct. 16 this year — it is the biggest day of the season for DEM’s elaborate pheasant stocking program.
Addieville East Farm is a 1,000-acre pheasant hunting haven tucked in the woods of the Burrillville village of Mapleville, down at the end of Pheasant Drive.
The property is home to 20 fields and dotted with brush thickets, cornfields, and trout ponds and is one of the main hunting clubs in the state. But it also is one of two pheasant farms that provides the birds for the DEM stocking program. (The other, Seven Mountain Farms, sits about an hour west of Albany, N.Y.)
Jack O’Brien, manager of Addieville, has run the farm since 1999. Before that, starting in the 1980s, he worked as a dog trainer and guide on the property.
By O’Brien’s estimate, Addieville is the single biggest poultry farm in the state — and the only one that raises pheasants. Each year, the farms handles about 30,000 birds. Some are brought in for on-site hunting; some are raised and reared to sell wholesale to other hunting clubs and DEM.
The chicks come about 5,000 at a time from hatchers that incubate the eggs and deliver them at nearly one-day old. Out of the egg in the morning, to the farm later that same day.
The birds live indoors at Addieville for the first several weeks of their lives. Then, when they are all feathered and ready to go, they move into the farm’s 8 acres of flight pens — 100- to 200-yard-long pens with feeders inside. Netting sits 20 to 30 feet over head, giving the birds room enough to fly around, spread their wings, and get some meat on their bones.
“We keep human contact at a minimum because we want them to be as wild as they can be,” O’Brien says. O’Brien is privy to process, but for years pheasant raising at Addieville has primarily been the responsibility of one family.
“It’s a huge job,” he says, and one that has been passed on through the family for three generations. The quality of the birds, he says, is due to their care. (The family declined to speak to ecoRI News for this article.)
“We have very good birds,” O’Brien says. “They’re healthy, they’re great.”
When the birds reach maturity at about 16 weeks old, they are ready for market. DEM buys the birds at this point for about $15 a piece. Addieville staff capture them on-site and cart them down to DEM’s Great Swamp Management Area headquarters in West Kingston. It’s there the birds first meet Fish.
Ring-necked pheasants are nonnative in the Americas, but their presence in New England is long established.
Originally a Eurasian species, ring-necked pheasants were first brought to the United States in 1881, according to DEM, and first established in Rhode Island in the early 1900s to increase hunting opportunities. Back then, the state was primarily open grassland and farmland. The habitat was ideal, and the birds became abundant in Washington, Bristol and Newport counties.
As the 20th century progressed, and more and more open space was developed, prime pheasant habitat was lost. The ring-necked population declined. By the 1950s, the state began stocking pheasants to supplement game-bird hunting.
“Game birds tend to follow the landscape pretty well,” Fish says.
Today, only a few pheasants run wild in the state, out on Block Island. The rest are stocked by DEM through an annual program that dispatches about 6,000 birds per season. Fish, who started with DEM in September, manages the pheasant program, as well overseeing the state’s turkeys, American woodcock, and mourning doves — “which is kind of the suite of upland game birds,” he says.
“There’s a large amount of science that goes into it,” says Fish, in between rattling off encyclopedic knowledge of woodcock migration and waterfowl bill morphology.
Hunting today is far more regulated than it used to be, Fish says. He speculates this stems from the country’s long history of overhunting and a lesson hard learned. Now, contingents of scientists conduct survey tracking, look at disease dynamics and management, and gauge the sustainability of hunted species populations.
“The sport has developed — society has developed — to not ever repeat those mistakes again,” Fish says.
In Rhode Island, pheasant hunters require a Rhode Island hunting license — a $21 document that mandates a Hunter Education Certificate and is required to be carried while hunting — and a $17 game-bird permit. In the 2020-21 season, DEM sold about 1,600 permits, up from 1,305 permits the year prior.
With a game-bird permit, each hunter can bag two birds per day and can hunt multiple days in a season. According to DEM spokesperson Mike Healey, pheasant hunters averaged five birds over the course of last season.
Together, hunters and anglers in the state buy some 70,000 licenses, permits, stamps, and tags annually. According to Healey, this brings $235 million to the Rhode Island economy. By 2028, fee increases will generate another $300,000 for the state.
Some of this money goes back into the pheasant program, but also helps finance other stocking programs, such as brook trout, wildlife management, conservation, and habitat programs, in what the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service calls the Cycle of Success. According to Fish, many of the wildlife areas in the state were initially purchased and protected through this process.
Now, these protected management areas are home to migratory birds, predator species, and threatened and endangered species such as piping plovers and New England cottontails. They are frequented by hunters, birders, hikers, and others, as demand for their use increases.
More than 60 years into the stocking program — and more than a century after the birds were established in New England — pheasant hunting has become rooted as a family tradition for many.
“It’s generations of grandfathers and fathers and sons and daughters,” O’Brien says.
Before working at Addieville, O’Brien led hunts in Quebec and Wisconsin. And before that, O’Brien grew up bird hunting with his parents. He bagged his first pheasant around the time he first learned to drive — age 16 or so — with help from his self-trained Brittany spaniel.
“It was amazing. It all came together when you finally get that first one,” O’Brien says. “It was a trophy.”
Fish, too, grew up hunting with his family, in Minnesota, back where there are still pockets of wild pheasants scattered around the North Star State. He remembers the nerves, the thrill, the feeling of handling his first duck.
“When you actually harvest something, you get to hold it and see it in a different way — see the iridescence of its feathers,” says Fish, noting his early experience with hunting spurred his career in wildlife management.
Jason Newman didn’t grow up pheasant hunting. As a kid, he and his family would drive down from the Massachusetts border to go deer hunting on Prudence Island. But for a while, he grew out of hunting.
About 10 years ago, Newman, now 45, learned of the state’s pheasant stocking program and got in touch with a prominent pheasant hunter in the area, Nick Grasso, through social media. Grasso agreed to teach him how to hunt pheasant with a dog, and Newman was hooked.
After a few months, Newman went out and bought his own Brittany spaniel, Biscuit. Now 10 years old, Biscuit is slowing down, Newman says, but they still hunt about twice a week. And when Biscuit finds a scent, Newman watches him “turn into a puppy again.”
“Not only does it provide meat that I enjoy eating, but it’s kind of part of my life now after 10 years doing it,” Newman says. “It’s the same as going to a supermarket.”
Newman works nights doing fiber tech support, which often leaves his mornings open for hunting. And he sidelines as the founder and administrator of the Rhode Island Small Game Hunters social-media group — a community of some 700 hunters in the state sharing everything from hunting tips to the best recipes for pheasant tikka masala.
When he started the group in 2017, he didn’t think it would take off as it has. Now, he gets so many notifications he had to create a separate profile to cordon off his hunting life from his personal life. (He’s known by the alias Jason Hunter, online). He has seen interest in the sport grow during the pandemic.
“Now you have more hunters but not as many birds,” Newman says.
Fish has also noted a surge in hunting during the pandemic. But interest was growing before people flocked to outdoor interests with indoor COVID-19 closures.
“There’s kind of a renewed interest in hunting that’s maybe related to food sustainability,” Fish says. “People are kind of … trying to be more of that process — that field-to-table, catch-cook-clean process.”
Pheasant hunting is appealing, he says, due to its low cost of entry. The season starts early, in pretty mild conditions. Hunters don’t need much gear, just the “base level of equipment.” A pair of boots, an orange vest and hat, and a shotgun — no decoys, boats, waterproofs or waders. Many also see some appeal in training and working with dogs.
“Upland bird hunting, in particular, has been attractive as that first starting point to grow and expand,” he says. “It’s cool in that respect, I think we’re excited to support that and continue that experience.”