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Whether it is experienced for the first or the 500th time, the flush of a rooster pheasant is breathtaking. Even from beneath the point of a dog, the bird always seems to be coming from nowhere but heading for somewhere—in a hurry.
Against a faded autumn setting of corn or cattails, the iridescent crimsons, blues and ambers of a flushing cockbird, which often extends a full yard from ivory beak to tail tip, almost overpower the eyes with sudden contrast. For the ears there's a roar of beating wings and a startling cackle that too often turns into a mocking cry when a shot is missed...or not taken at all. Many a novice has stood spellbound, tightly gripping a forgotten shotgun.
Every year pheasants lure thousands of hunters, ranging from farm kids on a stolen respite from school-work and chores, to CEOs whose private jets deliver them to stubble-filled fields. Those who outwit a cunning cockbird come away with the fulfillment of a successful hunt, along with a gourmet dinner.
But this fall the flavor of the meals, the thrills and memories of the hunt, will have an even greater significance. Though the long-tailed birds by now seem as all-American as whitetails and bobwhites, ring-necked pheasants are relative newcomers to this country. With the first flushes of the season, sportsmen will begin commemorating the 100th year of hunting wild pheasants in America.
"Originally a bird of Asia, pheasants have always been a popular import. They were showing up in Greece around 1300 B.C. and had been brought into England as early as 250 A.D.," says Chris Dorsey, author of Pheasant Days (to be published in the spring by Voyageur Press). "Attempts were made to establish pheasant populations in America beginning in the 1730s. Even George Washington had several pheasants shipped from England to Mt. Vernon."
As was the case with Washington, most such attempts to establish ringnecks in America ended in failure. "The biggest problem was probably bad breeding," says Dorsey. "It seems that the birds were largely domesticated stock that was imported from England. Then, as now, releasing pen-reared stock into the wild does not work well. They just can't withstand the rigors of nature as well as wild game."
It wasn't until late in the 19th century that wild pheasants established a viable toehold in America. Judge Owen N. Denny, U.S. consul general in Shanghai, was the catalyst for this breakthrough. In late 1881 or early 1882, Denny shipped between 50 and 70 wild Chinese pheasants to the Denny family homestead in Oregon. After being released in the Willamette Valley, the pheasants flourished. Just 10 years later, when the first official ring-neck season was declared, a bag of nearly 50,000 birds was taken on opening day.
This success led to the establishment of wild pheasant populations, all of which can be traced back to Denny's stock, in 39 states by 1907. Hunting seasons are now held in 32 states. A few other states have isolated, unhunted flocks, while some, mostly in the deep South, can't support a population.
The imported birds throve in areas that were patchworks of small farms. Pheasants could easily grow fat while feeding in the grainfields, while neighboring grass and weed patches offered optimum conditions for nesting and winter cover. A bird that was once nonexistent in the U.S. became a major prize within the span of a few decades. In 1945, for example, 40 years after the bird's introduction to South Dakota, it was estimated that there were more than 16 million pheasants in that state.
"We had some phenomenal pheasant populations right on through the early 1960s," says Jeffrey Finden, executive director of Pheasants Forever, a conservation group that is based in Vadnais Heights, Minn., and is dedicated to protecting and providing habitats for the birds. "It was really extraordinary in the late '50s and early '60s."