A Pleasant Bird is the Pheasant

After more than a century in this country, the ringneck is one imported species that hasn't worn out its welcome

10-01-1992 // Gary Turbak

On a March afternoon in 1882, the ship Isle of Butte, inbound from Shanghai, glided to its moorings at Portland, Oregon. Traveling steerage on that voyage from China were some rather unusual immigrants--a gaudy, raucous, flamboyant lot of strutting fowl the likes of which most Americans had never seen.

"Pheasants?" asked the longshoremen. "Never heard of them." Neither had anyone else. But soon the whole country would know about these birds.

The Chinese ring-necked pheasant fit America's turn-of-the-century farming scene hand-in-glove, surviving where native birds could not. Since its arrival in this country a century ago, the ringneck has surged to the top of game-bird popularity lists. The flashy foreigner has multiplied beyond anyone's wildest imagination, earning one "state bird" designation along the way. Now sportsmen are celebrating the centennial of pheasant hunting in America.

That doesn't mean all is rosy for the pleasant newcomer. In recent decades, the farmers whose practices once helped the birds prosper have ironically become the agents of pheasant decline as they methodically eliminate nesting habitat.

Yet already, a smorgasbord of conservation programs in parts of the country has begun to restore vital tracts of lost cover. Some states are even trying to repeat the pheasant miracle by importing a new subspecies of the bird. Though the heyday of ringneck prolificacy may have come and gone, the pheasant's second century in America is looking bright.

One great ringneck accomplishment is simply that it has done no harm. Time and again, wildlife brought to this country from elsewhere has displaced native species, wreaked economic havoc or worse. Alien starlings, for example, deprive bluebirds and other cavity-nesters of homes. Pigeons, also immigrants, defile buildings and are often considered a nuisance.

But the pheasant, which neatly filled a farmland niche, has caused no problems. "Unlike many exotics, pheasants have a long history of success in America without any known detrimental impact on native birds," says Doug Inkley, a National Wildlife Federation ecologist.

Weighing nearly 3 pounds, stretching 36 inches from bill to tail tip and feathered in kaleidoscopic iridescence, the cock pheasant is truly spectacular. (Hens weigh a little less and are cloaked in mottled buffs and browns.) These gaudy birds originated in Asia, but ancient travelers carried them to new lands. Over the years, domesticated strains of the birds evolved into today's chickens. Taxonomists say there are only two species of true pheasants, but dozens of subspecies and the birds' apparent penchant for interbreeding have blurred genetic lines.

Pheasants first visited the New World in 1733, when the governor of New York imported a few from England. These birds perished, as did those brought here later by George Washington and Ben Franklin's son-in-law, Richard Bach. For the next century, America remained pheasantless.

Then in 1882, Judge Owen Denny, U.S. consul in Shanghai, put about 30 showy Chinese ring-necked pheasants aboard the Isle of Butte. Released on a wooded hillside behind the Denny estate in Oregon's Willamette Valley, the birds prospered almost beyond belief. Soon, pheasants spread into surrounding counties, mystifying local bird watchers and sometimes quarreling with domestic roosters. In 1892--only ten years later--Oregon held its first pheasant hunting season, and sportsmen killed 50,000 of the birds on opening day.

Suddenly, every state wanted to share this game-bird bonanza. Oregon provided much seed stock, but many states, especially in the East, imported more of the birds. "Pheasants came here from all over Europe and Asia and met in a kind of giant genetic melting pot in the Midwest," says Russ Sewell, director of project development for Pheasants Forever, a conservation organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Though North America's pheasants are called ringnecks (because of their distinctive white throat band), most are an amalgamation of several subspecies.

Today, pheasants thrive in farming regions across most of the country except the Southeast, where high springtime temperatures may prevent embryo development in the eggs. The birds have adapted especially well to northern grain-growing states and the irrigated valleys of the West. Nationwide, they probably number in the tens of millions.

Ringnecks are tough, resilient and prolific. Each spring, cocks conduct ritual--and sometimes actual--battles for breeding rights, using their pointed leg spurs as weapons. Serious injuries are few, however. After mating, the hen constructs a simple grass-lined nest on the ground and lays about a dozen eggs. If something destroys her clutch, she usually will renest until she produces chicks. Incubation lasts about 23 days, and two weeks after hatching, the chicks can take short flights. By fall, the young are on their own.

Pheasants spend virtually all their time on the ground. They travel mostly by walking or, when chased, sprinting roadrunner-fashion at 8 to 10 miles per hour. Pheasant flight is a sudden, furious explosion of wings beating three times per second, followed by gliding and lasting only a half-mile or so. Because pheasants are ground-dwellers, predators and farm machinery kill many and destroy eggs. Only one in ten will survive to its second birthday.

Hunters and state game departments ushered the pheasant into its century of great prosperity. The birds were delicious to eat, wary afield and a challenging target when airborne. Most important, they precisely filled an available niche. Years before, native prairie chickens and sharptail grouse had largely faded from the scene, unable to cope with prairie converted to cropland. Ringnecks, however, thrived amid the mosaic of crops and cover that defined rural America during the first two-thirds of this century.

Grain fields in those days were small, and grassy fencelines numerous. Road ditches went unmowed. Shelterbelts, or rows of trees planted in long windbreaks, proliferated. Many farmers plowed around low brushy areas, ignored weeds at a field's edge and left grain stubble standing through the winter. From a conservationist's standpoint, farming then was delightfully "sloppy."

Between 1958 and 1963, the federal "Soil Bank" program (which paid farmers to grow grass instead of crops) turned millions of tilled acres into ringneck cover. "Conditions for pheasants were ideal," says Ray Linder, former professor of wildlife sciences at South Dakota State University. "Habitat quality and quantity were both outstanding."

Pheasants flourished especially well in South Dakota, where the ringneck population swelled to 16 million (40 million by some estimates) in the 1940s. Hunters nationwide journeyed to this pheasant mecca, pouring millions of dollars into the state's economy. In 1943, South Dakota declared the pheasant its state bird. "Pheasants were a big deal socially," says Linder. "The day before pheasant season, that's all people talked about--even the nonhunters. It was like a big party." Other states were only slightly less enamored of their pheasants.

The party continued into the 1960s, when the great pheasant miracle started to come undone. South Dakota's tally fell to fewer than 2 million birds in 1976. By 1978, populations had plummeted 96 percent in Ohio and Indiana, and 85 percent in North Dakota. Illinois' population hit an all-time low in 1984. No state was immune from the problem. "It became so bad in Michigan that you could drive for 100 miles on opening day of pheasant season and never see a hunter--or probably a pheasant either," recalls Tom Washington, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

Some suggested the birds had been "shot out." But the pheasant's system of mating makes overhunting virtually impossible. Each spring, dominant cocks assemble harems of 10 to 20 mates apiece. With so few males required, reproduction can continue apace even if most cocks had been killed the previous hunting season. (Hens generally are not hunted.)

Bad weather also caught some blame. In January 1977, for example, a three-day blizzard rolled into Illinois, bringing temperatures of--26 degrees F, 50-mph winds and 10-foot snow drifts. When the skies cleared, "dead pheasants were everywhere," recalls Larry David, a wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Conservation. "Many died of suffocation when their own breath froze and plugged their nostrils." In all, about 60 percent of Illinois' pheasants perished in the storm. But game managers knew that occasional blizzards couldn't hold pheasant numbers down for long.

Another theory put the onus on predators, prompting many states to declare war on some carnivores and egg-eaters. Still, the decline continued.

Only later, after looking at the decline through the wide-angle lens of time, did biologists learn the true cause. In a strange twist of fate, farming itself had become the ringnecks' worst enemy. Like a hungry giant, a changing agriculture industry was gobbling up pheasant habitat.

In 1963, the Soil Bank program ended (although some contracts did not expire until 1972), as the ethic of soil conservation yielded to the lure of foreign grain sales. Millions of grassy acres were converted to cropland. In the early 1970s, spurred by the go-go production philosophy of then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, many farmers began tilling all available land. They also cut hayfields earlier, mowed road ditches, killed weeds and eliminated grain stubble right after harvest. As farm machinery became larger, weedy fencerows got smaller or disappeared. "A farmer would plow up to the fenceposts and tilt them in one direction, then his neighbor would plow the other side and tilt them back," says David Watts of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. "Eventually, they'd get together and take out the fence entirely."

As farming grew cleaner and more efficient, much of rural America became a biological wasteland. In many places, the gentle swells of Midwest farmland now roll on unbroken for miles. Golden with grain in late summer, they lie black and barren most other times. "There's a word for it--desertification," says Randy Rodgers, a biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "Many farm fields are literally deserts much of the year."

And pheasants suffer because of it. "When all that cover went under the plow," says Watts, "a good bit of the pheasant population went with it." Valuable winter cover disappeared when farmers plowed shelterbelts to make room for more grain. And if weather or foxes don't get a pheasant, then mowing might.

But not all the news is bad as the nation celebrates its pheasant centennial. For starters, the 1985 federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) --which pays farmers for idling highly erodible land--has replaced crops with cover on 34 million acres. Pheasants, in turn, have responded throughout their entire range. "Where there's CRP land, pheasant numbers are up sharply," explains Larry David.

Pheasants Forever, which was started by hunters in 1982, has planted 4.5 million trees, purchased 15,000 acres of habitat and planted more than a half-million acres of pheasant food or cover. The organization's Highland chapter in Illinois (one of 420 in 29 states) raises about $50,000 a year and has purchased its own truck, tractor and seeder. Working evenings and on weekends, chapter members have planted more than 100,000 trees and several thousand acres of native grasses, clover, alfalfa, corn and sorghum.

Other changes also help. Increasingly numbers of farmers now seed grain into existing stubble rather than plow. South Dakota pays farmers to plant shelterbelts, pheasant-food plots and nesting cover. Many states require pheasant hunters to buy a special stamp, with profits going to habitat restoration. Illinois plants alfalfa on public roadsides, then allows farmers to harvest the hay after nesting season.

Michigan has even imported a new kind of pheasant to augment ringneck populations. Between 1985 and 1988, China supplied Michigan with 3,600 eggs from Sichuan pheasants, a subspecies closely resembling ringnecks. Cosmetically, Sichuans are a bit darker than ringnecks and lack the distinctive white throat band, but Michigan was more interested in another difference--the bird's ability to use marginal agricultural land.

"Sichuans are unbelievably adaptable," says Pete Squibb, the Department of Natural Resources biologist who headed the project. "In China, their habitat ranges from rice fields to above timberline at 15,000 feet." Authorities hoped Sichuans would colonize the 16 million brushy acres in southern Michigan that ringnecks largely avoid.

Since 1987, Michigan officials have released 55,000 Sichuans from their captive breeding program. "So far, these birds have done all the good things we expected them to do," says Tom Washington, whose group assisted with the project. "We have high hopes for this program."

Like ringnecks before them, Sichuans appear to be a trouble-free immigrant. "These birds have caused absolutely no problems for any native species," says Squibb. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon and New York have launched their own Sichuan projects.

The result of all these activities is more pheasants. South Dakota's ringneck population now tops 4 million for the first time in a decade. The pheasant harvest in Iowa and Illinois has doubled since 1984, and state after state reports pheasant increases. "We may never again see the great ringneck numbers of the 1960s, but there should be plenty of pheasants for a long time to come," predicts Larry David.

A century ago, pheasants proved that farming and at least some wildlife species could successfully coexist. Now, with help from concerned citizens and some innovative conservation measures, they are proving it again.

Montana writer Gary Turbak grew up in the heart of ringneck country in South Dakota.

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