PINE CITY, MINN. – In 1917, a sportsman's group called the Minnesota Game Protective League established a game farm on Big Island in Lake Minnetonka. As quickly, state legislators funded the operation to the tune of $17,000, hoping that pheasants raised there and also bobwhite quail and ruffed grouse would provide good sport, and not a little protein, for a grateful citizenry.
Five years later — exactly 100 years ago, in 1922 — pheasants had been released in 78 of the state's 87 counties, and while it's unclear which of the 87 didn't receive a bird allotment, Minnesota's handful of districts along its northern border would be a good bet.
This initial distribution of ringnecks throughout such a wide swath of Minnesota indicates the bird's advocates were uncertain whether one habitat type, say prairies, forests, or the transition zone in between, was better suited than others for these Chinese imports.
Apparently true as well was the belief a century ago that pheasants could survive equally well in southern Minnesota's relatively temperate winters and northern Minnesota's more severe ones.
In the intervening years, this last assumption has been proven incorrect: pheasants are indeed hearty, but there's only so much deep snow and frigid temperatures they can withstand.
But what if temperatures warmed, and winters grew shorter? Then, as they do in other countries — Britain being one — could pheasants survive, even thrive, in Minnesota's transitional landscapes, or even its northern woods?
The northward migration in recent years of Minnesota's pheasants would seem to indicate they can.
"The DNR roadside counts of pheasants this year are as good here in and near Pine County as they were anywhere in the state," Kenny Reed said.
Reed was speaking early Saturday morning, the first day of the state's 2022 ringneck season, while he, his wife, Beth, and Kris Oja were enjoying bacon and eggs in the Reeds' cabin on Pokegema Lake, not far from Pine City.
I was there as well, reveling in the feast and enjoying a pheasant-centric conversation whose location was at least 200 miles from Minnesota's more typical ringneck hotspots.
"We've got good numbers of birds here," Kenny said. "Unfortunately, the corn surrounding part of our property is still in the field, and the birds will be in there feeding most of the day."
A 30-year veteran of the St. Paul Police Department who retired in 2015 as the chief's executive officer, Kenny is quintessentially Minnesotan in his recreational interests. In spring he fishes, in fall he hunts, and in between he thinks about both, perhaps especially about the prospects that the 80 acres near Pine City he and Beth purchased in 2016 will someday hold as many pheasants as any similarly sized plot in southern or western Minnesota.
That could happen sooner than later if, as many climate prognosticators believe, Minnesota winters continue to slump toward a snowless day of reckoning.
In the meantime, the Reeds, and Oja too, are taking no chances. Each is improving pheasant habitat in east-central Minnesota, and in the process benefiting not only pheasants, but other wildlife as well.
A native of Lindstrom, Minn., about 40 miles north of St. Paul, Oja is a Pheasants Forever farm bill biologist, one of more than 400 similarly titled experts the organization employs nationwide. His job is to help farmers find state and federal programs that pad their bottom lines while also protecting their least productive and most fragile lands.
"It's different working in this part of the state than it would be, say, in southwest Minnesota or western Minnesota," Oja said. "Farmers here aren't quite as familiar with programs that can help them. But when I show them what's available, they're open to it. We're making progress."
The Reeds' 80 acres lie a short drive west of their cabin, and by 9 a.m. Saturday the four of us were on site, locked and loaded, intending to wear out boot leather.
With three dogs — two springer spaniels (one is retired) and one Picardy spaniel, a breed I had never hunted over — the Reeds are partners as hunters and partners also in reclamation of their acreage. Together on the property they tore down an old farmhouse, removed a trailer home and created an admirable patchwork of grasslands, shelterbelts and ponds that benefit the Snake River watershed while imbuing in each of them significant pride of accomplishment.
"I've also got a big garden on the property," Beth said. "We had a great harvest this year."
Well into our hunt now, we were hiking a variety of cover, some of it tamped down in the shape of deer beds, while up ahead a red-tailed hawk rose and fell on the morning's chilled breezes.
First to flush was a hen pheasant whose ashen coloring appeared even more so against the gunmetal sky. A short while later, a rooster escaped on the outer limits of shotgun range. Touching the trigger twice, I chased him with hope-and-a-prayer volleys, drawing nary a feather.
A short time passed before another rooster flushed, this one well ahead. By then, Bailey, the springer spaniel, had been exchanged for Madie, the Picardy spaniel, which unlike the springer is a pointer.
The dogs were good, and the company too, and in a few weeks when the corn bordering the Reeds' property is harvested the tables will turn.
Pheasants that on Saturday morning enjoyed the crop's refuge will then hunker in the haunts that have been so carefully provided for them.
Advantageous as these habitats are for the birds, they're perhaps more so for the people who cultivated them, wildlife stewardship being its own reward.