After raising the pheasant chicks for 4 months, they were ready to move to their outside pen. I had spent the past couple of weeks constructing a pen that was 35 feet long x 40 feet wide and 10 feet high. It had wire mesh sides which were also buried underground to keep predators from digging under. I put netting over the entire top to keep my birds from flying out or hawks/eagles from flying in. I thought it was “predator proof”, silly me!
I raised the pheasants in the outdoor pen for the next two months. It was amazing to see them transform from young chicks to fully mature pheasants! They were beautiful and it was heart warming to know that we had raised them from little tiny chicks! Finally, I was ready to release them into the wild! I recalled that I had to obtain written permission from the Department of Natural Resources based on the permit I had obtained. I pulled my permit out of the files and located the number on the form that I had to call. I gave them a call to ask them what type of “formal permission” I needed in order to release my birds. Was it a formal letter, an email, some type of form? The lady on the other end of the phone listened to my question and then very matter of factly stated “you cannot release your birds into the wild”! I was stunned! I said, “I beg your pardon! Did you say I cannot release my birds?”. She said “Yes!. I told her that I didn’t understand, and that I had been talking to DNR for the past several months and that they had been helping me to plan their whole eco-system. Why would you now tell me I can’t release them? She asked me whom in DNR I had talked to? I gave her the name of the gents I had talked to and she said “Oh, that is just the wildlife management group, they don’t know anything about permits”! I told her that I could not believe that her own department didn’t know their own rules but she said they were separate groups. Errrrgggghhhh! I was so frustrated!! She told me that they would not permit the release of pen raised birds into the wild in order to prevent the spread of diseases. I told her that all of my birds had been inoculated against all common bird diseases but she did not budge! I then asked her what the heck I was supposed to do with the 90 birds that I had raised to release. She said the only way I could release them was for hunting or dog training. This meant I had to release the birds a few at a time in order to train dogs but then the birds had to be shot as they took off. She said there was no other way.
I made the decision that I would use most of the birds for training but that I would hold back about 20 of them for breeding new birds (this was based mostly on sentimental reasoning, not logic). We released the majority of the birds for training dogs. Most of them were taken home by the dog’s owners but several got away, when the shots were missed. Those birds hung around for the next several months in the area but slowly the sightings decreased. After about 8 months, no one reported seeing any pheasants around. I kind of expected that but it was still pretty disheartening. We even heard one story from a friend in a nearby neighborhood about our pheasants. He told me that one day he was out mowing his back lawn when he heard two gun shots coming from the property next door. He ran out front to see what was going on. He saw his neighbor running out from his front door with his shotgun still smoking. He ran out into his front yard and grabbed two dead pheasants and then ran back into his house. So much for hunting ethics and being a good sportsman!
I continued to raise the remaining birds in the pen. We even saw some new chicks hatch within the pen over the next few months. It looked like my experiment would work and that I could raise more pheasants. I wasn’t really sure what I would do with them but I really enjoyed seeing them each day, even if it was just inside the pen. For some reason, some of the new chicks decided it would be a good idea to sneak through the wire and get outside the pen. They were just small enough where they could squeeze through the chicken wire. We were lucky enough to catch them doing this a few times and we would put them back in the pen. But, a few times the barn cats got to them first. Life can be cruel on a farm sometimes.
It had become a routine to check on the pheasants each day and see how they were doing. I still enjoyed seeing the brightly colored males strutting around inside the pen. They also made some interesting “calls” that were fun to hear and made the farm a better place to live.
One day, as I headed down to the barn to feed the animals, I looked into the pen and noticed a bird lying still on the ground. This was a bad sign so I went to check it out. I went into the pen and approached the bird. It was dead. Something had attacked and killed it and partially eaten it. I couldn’t believe it and immediately set out to determine how, whatever it was, had gotten into the pen. I walked the whole perimeter and couldn’t find any signs that something had broken in. I then checked all of the overhead netting and found it to be intact. I was puzzled! I ended up back at the door and looked very carefully. There were no gaps but there was what I would call a slight “divot” in the soil under the left side of the door. It was no more than one inch deep and about 6 inches wide. I started to wonder if maybe a weasel or ferret had somehow dug under the door? I wasn’t sure what other kind of predator could fit under a hole that small?
That was the only possible entry point I could find so I decided to focus my effort there. That night, I took a “Have a Heart Trap” which is a metal caged trap with a trap door on the front. The idea is that a critter will walk into the cage to get to some bait at the back end. When they walk towards the back, they have to walk on a false floor that lets the door close thereby trapping the animal inside without injury. I placed the trap just inside the door where the predator had dug under. I also placed a couple of logs on each side of the front of the trap to force the predator into the cage (I had to do this because the trap door sticks out about 5 inches from the front of the trap when it is open). I came down the next morning to see if I had caught anything. The trap door was sprung but there was nothing in the trap. I also had two more dead birds! What ever it was that was killing the birds was not only an accomplished hunter but it was also leaving most of the dead bird behind. It was almost like it was just killing them for the sport. Strange………..I also noticed that all of the birds were missing their heads and necks but most of their bodies were untouched. Also strange…….!
I decided to improve the trap that night so I made a wire mesh tunnel straight from the door of the pen to the trap. Now, nothing could go anywhere but under the door and follow the tunnel right into the trap! Boy was I smart! Or maybe not so much…….The next morning I came back down to check the trap. There was nothing in the trap but I had two more dead birds! After careful inspection, I discovered that whatever it was had gone under the door, but instead of staying in the tunnel, it dug under my tunnel before going into the trap! Boy, was I getting schooled! I was now down to about 16 birds and I was getting mad!
My next attempt was to stop by the local hardware store and by some of those nasty snapping leg traps. I hadn’t used those in the past because I had other animals, including the pheasants, that could get caught in those. I left my cage trap and tunnel in place but this time I placed the leg traps just on the other side of the tunnel were the critter had dug under. I figured if it tried the same tactic, that it would run into the leg traps! But, I also had to worry about the pheasants in the pen stepping onto them. So, I built a 3 foot high fence all around the inside of the door area and the trap. Kind of like a foyer area :’) Hopefully, this would keep the pheasants from getting near the trap. I came back down to the pen the next morning anticipating that I had finally stopped the attacks. No such luck! The cage trap was sprung, and one of the leg traps was sprung but nothing was in either one of them! A male pheasant was dead and two more females. This was very bad as I had only kept two males in the pen with the rest being females. The males will actually attack and fight each other over the females (just like men :’) so I was trying to keep that to a minimum. I was now down to 13 birds with only one male left. This was one smart critter and I still didn’t know what it was.
That night I reset the traps and filled in the hole under the pen door with pebbles and dirt. Then, I climbed up into the barn’s hay loft with my shotgun and waited. I had a great vantage point to watch over the pen’s door. I sat there until about 1 in the morning before I finally gave up. I had to go to work the next day so I needed at least a little sleep! I never saw a thing.
I didn’t get to check the pen the next morning but when I came home that evening, I had three more dead birds! Now down to 10. The next day I went back to the hardware store and bought a total of eight more leg traps. I placed them all in the “foyer” area and covered them with straw. I figured that if the predator dug under the tunnel again, it might walk around in that fenced in area and step into one of the traps before it could get to the birds again. The next morning revealed no success. The predator had dug back under the tunnel and sprung two of the leg traps and still got away! I was amazed and frustrated! My last male pheasant was dead and three more females had been killed. I was now down to six birds and all of them were female. No more chicks!
For the next couple of days, I continued to reset the traps in the hope that I could catch this killer. It continued to get by the traps and kill more birds. I was finally down to just one bird and I didn’t know what else to try. I was going crazy trying to figure out what could be killing all of my birds! I didn’t have the heart to subject the remaining bird to another night of horror so I let it go. I left the dead birds in the pen to serve as bait and planned my final trap. I removed the cage trap and the tunnel. I left the inner fenced in foyer in place and then I dug up all the ground in the foyer area down to about 2 inches. I then placed a total of ten leg traps on the ground and covered them loosely with dirt. I then sprinkled straw over the whole area. It was kind of like a straw covered minefield. Since there were no more birds left, I didn’t know if the night stalker would come back but I thought I would give it a try.
Well, the next morning I headed back down towards the barn and looked into the pen. I saw that something was in the pen near the door and my heart started racing! As I got closer, I saw that indeed, something was just inside the pen. I moved in closer and couldn’t believe my eyes! There, just inside the door was a very large raccoon! The largest one I had ever seen! It was caught in four different traps and it saw me coming. It was hissing and snarling at me as I approached. I thought this couldn’t possibly be true! How could something so large have fit under that little tiny gap?!?!? But, the raccoon had tried to escape after being caught and had his head under the door and outside the pen. This in itself was amazing since his head was the size of a medium sized dog. How did he compress his head to fit through a one inch gap? To this day, I haven’t figured this out. I also don’t really know why the final trap set up worked when all the rest did not. I guess I finally got lucky.
Since this raccoon had wreaked so much destruction, I had no problem dispatching him! Good riddance! When I lifted him up he must have weighed 30 pounds! He had been eating well!
Ever since that incident, I have never thought of raccoons the same. I had always envisioned them as cute little masked bandits. I now knew them to be crafty, skilled hunters who were quite strong and determined. Like I said, life on a farm can have its cruel side too.