WHITE CITY — Mark Vargas squints as he marches into a blizzard of feathers and beaks, searching for just the right flash of browns, reds and whites to make it worth risking bloody knuckles.

WHITE CITY — Mark Vargas squints as he marches into a blizzard of feathers and beaks, searching for just the right flash of browns, reds and whites to make it worth risking bloody knuckles.

He thrusts his right arm into a swarm of confused fowl, nabbing one of the many ring-neck pheasant roosters flying randomly inside the large net pen.

The bird quickly settles in Vargas' clutch, its now calm feathers revealing a palette of hues that make pheasants one of nature's grander creations.

"Just get a look at those colors," says Vargas, a state wildlife biologist. "Some of these birds are so beautiful."

They also are the cornerstone of the last vestige of pheasant hunting left in Western Oregon.

The birds now penned behind Vargas' office at the Denman Wildlife Area are the basis for Southern Oregon's popular Fee Pheasant Hunt, the upland game-bird hunters' equivalent of fishing for hatchery rainbow trout.

Four hundred farm-raised pheasants will be released systematically amid Denman's grass fields for hunters taking part in this 19-day hunt, which opens Monday at the wildlife area off East Gregory Road in White City.

Participants buy a special $11.50 tag to kill two pheasants a day on Denman tracts, often using hunting dogs to flush pheasants from carefully manicured fields restocked nightly with fresh birds.

The program artificially creates pheasant densities and hunting opportunities lost here, some of the collateral damage development has brought to Western Oregon.

Pheasant-friendly fields of cereal grain have long since ceded their Rogue Valley haunts to houses, vineyards and more pricey crops. But for three weeks each year, Denman's pheasant-seeded fields create a temporary flashback to times when a guy and his dog could spend hours flushing pheasants for the shotgun.

"For pheasant hunters, it's about the only game in town," Denman Manager Vince Oredson says. "We hope the hunters enjoy it."

Darin Claiborne and his black lab, Rita, can't get enough of it.

For the past five years, the pair has hit the fields three or four days a week, shooting a bird or two every other time, Claiborne says.

"They usually plant more birds on the weekends, and you usually pick up most of your birds in the first couple hours," says Claiborne, 43, a television advertising account executive in Medford. "Just being out there watching your dogs work is the best part."

Last year, hunters such as Claiborne logged 964 days afield and shot 373 birds for a 39-percent success rate.

"It's usually right around 40 percent," Oredson says. "It's pretty predictable and that's what we want. As long as it's working, we don't want to change it."

Change is a word associated with pheasants ever since 1882, when Judge Owen Denny shipped the first crates of ring-neck pheasants by boat from China for release outside of what is now Lebanon, Ore., for the first successful pheasant release in North America.

Initially called "Denny pheasants," the birds took to the wheat fields and flourished across Western Oregon, which became a bird hunter's paradise.

The good ol' days lasted into Claiborne's childhood, when the Rogue Valley floor teemed with roosters sporting the white collar and long tail feathers prized by fly-fishermen for tying trout and steelhead flies.

"You'd find pheasants up Bear Creek toward Ashland," Claiborne says. "You just don't see them there anymore."

The disappearance of pheasants across Western Oregon can be traced to changes in the landscape, says Dave Budeau, who manages upland game-bird programs for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Cereal-grain fields gave way to grass seed, and even vineyards now, Budeau says. In places like the Rogue Valley, many of the prime fields on biologist's regular bird-counting routes are now subdivisions.

In 1961, ODFW biologists in Western Oregon counted 25 pheasants for every 10 miles of census routes. By 1991, biologists on the same routes counted fewer than one bird per 10 miles.

Sensing a sea change in this hunting niche, the ODFW took a page from its put-and-take hatchery trout program and put feathers on it.

In 1989, Budeau set up the ODFW's first fee pheasant hunt on a trial basis at the E.E. Wilson Wildlife Area near Corvallis. It was an instant hit, and similar hunts began in 1990 at Fern Ridge Wildlife Area near Eugene and at Denman the following year.

Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, the last state-run wildlife area in Western Oregon with pheasant habitat, was added in 1999.

Now, 3,300 birds are spread among the four wildlife areas annually.

About the only change is the price of the birds, which the agency buys from an Idaho ranch for $16.25 apiece.

"It largely supports itself, even though the tag fees haven't changed," Budeau says.

For more than a decade, tag sales covered the costs, but not the past few years, Budeau says. Now the difference is made up with upland game-bird stamp dollars, he says.

"Our goal is to have it self-supporting," Budeau says.

As more fields fall prey to subdivisions — and with no private hunting clubs nearby — the 19 days of pheasant frenzy at Denman will continue to have plenty of two-legged and four-legged supporters.

"I'd really like to see a pheasant club here for me and my dogs," Claiborne says. "Until then, we have Denman."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.