What began as a simple FFA project for Centennial students has evolved into a multi-faceted educational experience.
The chapter raised a nye of pheasants for the second year in 2015, keeping them from the day they hatched until they could fly away.
Chapter adviser and ag teacher Arne Anderson said the chicks came from Swanson Hunting Farm in Niobrara. They received the birds live, because Anderson said projects like this usually only have a 60 to 65 percent hatch rate.
“We’ll probably hatch some pheasants and some quail eventually,” he said.
The chapter started with 102 chicks in 2015, and released 98 of them at the end of the project. The year before, they started with 104 and ended with 92, so Anderson was thankful for the better turnout the second time around.
Anderson said he had hoped to start raising pheasants four or five years ago, but the process was more complicated than he thought.
“We had to get a captive game permit from Nebraska Game and Parks. They came out and inspected our shop and where we planned to keep them,” he said.
Before the birds arrived, Anderson and his students spent five days preparing a habitat for the chicks. They used red heat lamps, monitoring the temperature and adjusting their distance from the tank the birds would be in.
They disinfected everything the birds would be near, laid down woodchips for bedding, covered the bedding with a sheet to make it more comfortable, and set out food and water dishes.
Anderson said they learned a lot about pheasant habitats and their eating and drinking habits.
“We put nuts (the hardware) in their water and food dishes,” he said. “In nature, they see the sun reflecting off the dew on leaves and they peck at it. That’s how they drink.”
Students also learned to put rocks around the water dishes so the birds couldn’t fall in and drown.
When the birds arrived, Anderson and his students spent the first week monitoring their temperature and development. When the chicks reached a week old, the students lowered the temperature of their environment and watched their behavior.
“If they’re quiet, everything’s good. If they’re noisy, something’s wrong,” Anderson said.
The birds’ tank was covered in netting five to six feet tall to keep the birds from flying out.
Students Andrew Cast and Kyle Pankoke built a shed especially for the pheasants, to give them a nesting area away from predators.
When they reached three weeks old, students released the pheasants into nearby areas with native grasses where they could chase their own food – bugs.
“You listen, hope to see them, check around for them,” Anderson said, adding that the students kept track of the birds and how many were still around.
“It’s amazing at seven or eight weeks, we release them and they fly,” he said.
But the project wasn’t over after the birds flew away.
Anderson said students used what they learned from the pheasants in other aspects of their ag education.
“They learn about the history of the pheasant, but more importantly the habitat, what grasses and weeds are important. They ID water fowl, ID plants, do water testing,” he said.
Anderson said pheasant and quail numbers have been low in recent years because crop prices have led to farmers turning much of their habitat into farmland. The birds are starting to make a comeback, though.
“It’s just making (students) aware. Telling them, ‘You’re the generation that has to start bringing this habitat back,’” he said.
Students became aware of the avian flu that recently wiped out millions of chickens, because it could have affected the pheasants if they came in contact with the disease.
“We always want them to see both sides of the issue. The pheasant thing is cool, but it has opened us up to so many other things,” Anderson said.
The chapter was one of three featured in “Successful Farming” magazine in August for their pheasant and natural resources project.
Anderson took several students on a trip this past summer to the Swanson Hunting Farm in Niobrara for a retreat, giving them the chance to experience new outdoor activities.
“Some, I swear they’re born outside. Others, they’ve never had the chance to fish or shoot blue rock,” Anderson said. “Most of them have never seen anything like Niobrara.”
One goal of the retreat and projects like raising pheasants is to expose students to potential career paths in the ag industry.
“Maybe we’ll trip their trigger on something they haven’t thought about,” Anderson said.