Ring-Necked Pheasant: A Colorful Look at Rural America’s Favorite Game Bird

Small towns throughout rural America have the Firebirds, Tornados, the Blue Comets. My town in southeast Kansas competed as the Tigers, and we locked horns – in both academic and sporting arenas – against the Purple Dragons, the Bulldogs and the Vikings, among others. 

Interscholastic competition is a point of major pride in small towns, where students oftentimes play for the same high school football team or join the same debate team as their mothers and fathers before them.  

But the Pheasants?! Believe it. What South Dakota’s Parker High School mascot lacks in ferocity, it makes up for with
cultural significance.

The ring-necked pheasant thrives in North America and boasts a population ranging from California to Maine and from Texas to southern Canada. It plays the role of one of America’s favorite game birds and is a cultural icon in the middle part of the country. Yet there’s plenty to learn about this bird that has thrived and failed along with the American farmer. 

Coming to America 

The ring-necked pheasant is native to Asia and is one of the most successful introduced birds in North America. While some Americans view the bird as native, it came to the United States in 1881 and landed in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. 

Travis Runia, upland game biologist in the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, says the birds were originally raised in captivity (they still are today), be it for food or some other use, and, in isolated instances, small groups of pheasants escaped and thrived.  

In Kansas, ring-necks were first introduced with a release of 3,000 birds in 84 counties in the spring of 1906. The birds adapted well to Kansas conditions, and populations eventually boomed because of habitat, a recurring theme in the rise and fall of rural American
pheasant populations.

Similarly, in 1908, the species took hold in South Dakota when three pairs were introduced near Redfield, which now proclaims itself the “Pheasant Capital of the World.” 

Populations took hold in other Plains states in the same way, like a perfect populating storm for a species thriving in what was a very suitable environment. Pheasant numbers rose and fell, but over time this species has flown to the top in terms of popularity for upland birds. 

The favorable landscape seems to encapsulate characteristics of the land that are forever seared into my mind and represent country life in Middle America – a balanced blend of row crops, small grains, fallow land, pasturelands, grasslands and abandoned farmland.  

“In eastern South Dakota, there’s a really good mosaic landscape of grass and small grains and row crop,” Runia says, “and that’s probably why they thought in the early 1900s that it might be a good landscape.” 

They thought right, although like other wildlife populations, the ring-neck pheasant’s history tells of both boom and bust. 

Peaks and Valleys 

South Dakota’s pheasant phenomenon is similar to other states. I point to this state in particular because it’s regarded as the best state for pheasant population. In 2007, South Dakota led the way in estimated harvested birds, a suitable proxy for bird abundance. It had more than twice that of the second-best state, with more than 2 million birds harvested that year, followed by North Dakota (907,000), Kansas (887,000), Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. 

Four periods of boom and three periods of bust sum up the history of the ring-necked pheasant in South Dakota, changes driven by changes in policy, land use and climate/weather. 

In the first half of the 20th century, pheasant numbers illustrate American history, and the species thrived in a way that inversely mirrored the American farmer. In the early 1930s, the Depression, drought, slipshod farming practices and land bankruptcy meant more abandoned farmland and habitat, precipitating a boom that grew ring-neck population to 12 million. 

When Dust Bowl-era climate conditions improved shortly thereafter, and farmers could till more land, birds faced starvation. Weather didn’t help, and 80 percent of the population was lost during the winter of 1937, when more than 70 inches of snow pounded eastern South Dakota.  

The Second World War meant that farmers left their plows, and fuel was in short supply for those who were able to stay home. Agriculture fell off sharply, resulting in more abandoned cropland and grassland, and with a favorable climate, the ring-necks thrived once again. Population numbers reached an estimated 16 million birds in 1946, likely the largest the state will ever see. 

After the war, farmers returned to the field and the agricultural economy improved, which once again destroyed prime ring-neck habitat. Warm spring temperatures spoiled the hatch of 1946, followed by another harsh winter, and a second poor hatch in 1950. Pheasant numbers plummeted. 

The precursor to today’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Soil Bank enactment was a major policy change in 1956 that took agricultural land out of production and seeded it with perennial grasses and legumes; sufficient land was enrolled in the program to boost pheasant population to an estimated 11 million birds.  

This boom lasted about eight years, as the Soil Bank was short-lived, haying programs were authorized, and a blizzard hit South Dakota in 1966. All told, wildlife biologists estimated an 86-percent mortality rate to the ring-necked pheasant population that year. 

Unlike the other periods, this bust lasted into the 1980s and was sustained by a U.S. government policy shift from conservation to production as markets opened up in Russia and China for surplus commodities. Corn prices and Big Ag were up (fence-line to fence-line farming), so pheasant habitat was down. The low point was 1976, when population was down to levels not seen since the species’ introduction in the early 1900s. 

Then came the CRP in 1985, and efforts by wildlife conservation groups like Pheasants Forever led the species into its current boom, which started in 1986 and remains today. As with the Soil Bank, there’s naturally a positive correlation between land in CRP and the pheasant population. The big question today for the ring-necked pheasant population is what will happen when CRP contracts expire and how new shifts in agriculture will affect the way landowners choose to use their land. 

Striking creature 

The game bird itself can be easily identified as male or female – except by the occasional eager, trigger-happy hunter (typically only males are allowed to be hunted). Ring-neck roosters are unmistakable: a spectacular multicolored plumage with a white collar (as the name suggests), predominately brown body, blue above the collar on the neck to green on the head and red around the eye, with a long tail.  

Hens are less showy, with a duller, mottled brown plumage all over and no markings on the head. Both sexes are swift runners and strong flyers for short distances. 

Ring-necks are a polygynous species, so one rooster will mate with many hens just like a buck deer mates with many does. This is the reason for the roosters-only hunting policy enacted in pheasant states. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks even estimates that 80 to 90 percent of ring-neck roosters present in the fall can be safely harvested through hunting without hindering reproduction the following spring. Roosters practice “harem-defense polygyny,” where one male keeps other males from getting to his group of females during mating season. 

Pheasants are predominately ground-dwellers, nesting on the ground in tall grass or weeds, and eat seeds – especially cultivated grain – grasses, leaves, roots, wild fruits and nuts, and insects. 

Game bird 

Off the top of his head, Runia says over the last five to seven years, South Dakota has had about 100,000 non-resident and 70,000 resident hunters pursuing pheasants each year. They’ve come from every state in the nation, and, last year, they made an estimated economic impact of about $200 million in the state. 

Since pheasants fly fairly slow and are relatively large compared to a quail or dove, they are fun and easy to hunt, and throughout Middle America remain abundant. 

Fathers take their sons, uncles take their nieces and nephews, and increasingly mothers take their children as multiple generations make yearly pilgrimages to chase ring-neck pheasants around the Plains states. Worldwide, business executives travel from all over the world and make business agreements in rows of cut corn, in much the same way deals are made on golf courses. 

Some might dislike the idea of that; I know the quail population on our farm was wiped out pretty quickly, and we despised the sight of a fancy new truck slowly tooling down one of our gravel roads during hunting season.  

However, the positive economic impact the ring-necked pheasant makes every year in rural America is undeniable. It’s a beautiful species that in many ways embodies American farm life. Many of us even grow up thinking of it as our own, even though it’s an introduced species. And they sure do bring a nice taste of the wild to the dinner table. 

Caleb Reganand his wife, Gwen, live in rural Douglas County, Kansas, where they enjoy hunting, fishing, and raising and growing as much of their own food as they can. Caleb can’t imagine a better scenario than getting to work on a rural lifestyle magazine as a profession, and then living that same lifestyle right in the heartland of America. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published on Oct 7, 2010
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