YORK — York High School science teacher Josh Miller’s latest project met him at the door one morning: a handful of pheasant chicks fluttering around the science room and making a bit of a mess.
Miller was still discovering little signs of loose birds hidden in the classroom days later, long after he gathered the birds from their jailbreak. The feathered felons are part of a new project for some of Miller’s high school science classes. “I had no clue what I was getting myself into,” he said.
The flock originally started with 40 chicks; a few died, but the vast majority – now 3 ½ weeks old – are almost ready for a new home. Because they have been confined to the science room, Miller said he has some concerns about their survival. The chicks are not fully domesticated, but still have little concept of how to avoid predators like coyotes, Miller said.
However, the next batches will have a better chance, thanks to the York Public Schools Foundation. Miller applied for funding to get a “Surrogator.” The apparatus lets chicks grow up in the wild, while keeping them safe. The self-contained, souped-up brooder comes complete with an automatic feeder and waterer, and a heat source for the tiny tweeters. Half of the Surrogator’s walls, along with part of the roof, are wire mesh, allowing the game chicks to “get to know” their predators and environment safely. Once the chicks are old enough, the Surrogator is opened, allowing them to wander into the wilderness.
When ready for the next group of chicks, the Surrogator will be put into use in a host’s rural grassland. One idea Miller has come up with is hooking up a game camera to the Surrogator and using the footage to help his students learn about predators and animal behavior.
Miller’s efforts have been supplemented by an ornithology class he’s been working on for the past several months. The pheasant project has been the subject of many class conversations, Miller said, the whole class learning from the YHS efforts.
While his ornithology coursework has helped Miller and his classmates, before the project took flight, Miller sought out a different kind of expert’s help: Dustin Chrisman of Double Barrel Game Farm & Hatchery near McCool. “All of this that I have here,” Miller said, gesturing to his classroom brooders, “I learned from Dustin.”
Miller said he was amazed the first time he visited Double Barrel – a well-oiled machine consisting of elements like heated brooders and dozens of acres worth of netted flight pens. By circumstance, Miller ended up being put to work on the hatchery, most recently learning how to sex and sort newly-hatched pheasant chicks. While he’s improving, Miller said, sexing chicks is quite a bit more difficult than he expected. Even so, since that first visit Miller has been all-in. “I’ve been going every Monday since.”
Students in the upcoming school year will be learning from – and along with – their teacher’s pheasant endeavors. Bird anatomy, nutrition and reproduction are just a few topics Miller hopes to cover in some of his biology classes. Going the extra mile, Miller has also constructed a 20’ x 50’ pheasant enclosure on his own property.
With his enthusiasm for the pheasant project – augmented by a longtime love for hunting – Miller, the game farm and, soon, YHS biology students are sure to come together as birds of a feather.