For more than a century, one of the most beautiful sights in nature has prompted generations of Minnesotans to incubate thousands of tiny eggs, reclaim vast acreages of grasslands, purchase multiple sections of public lands, and wear out a battalion’s worth of boot leather.
All for the flush of a rooster pheasant.
Implausibly florid, with colors ranging from bright red to iridescent dark green, the male ring-necked pheasant when rousted gains purchase in a blur, its relatively short wings beating three times per second as it rockets to a top speed of 45 miles an hour.
Among the state’s first devotees of these Chinese imports were members of the Minnesota Game Protective League.
Armed with a $17,000 grant from the Minnesota Legislature, in 1917 they established a game farm on Lake Minnetonka’s Big Island, where, along with bobwhite quail and ruffed grouse, pheasants were raised in an attempt to boost hunting prospects.
Secure in the prairies, grasslands, fence rows and cattails that were abundant at the time, pheasants flourished quickly. By 1931, when hunting was allowed in 41 counties, Depression-era scattergunners harvested 1 million Minnesota roosters during a 10-day season.
Now these many years later, on the cusp of what is expected to be a resurgent pheasant hunting season, Minnesotans have reason to celebrate not only the beauty of the state’s most famous introduced species but its durability.
Deserving also of celebration are the efforts of countless Minnesotans who for more than a century have advocated passionately for a bird that is as pretty as a peacock, as wily as a coyote and whose survival instincts surpass those even of politicians.
By contrast, consider the fates of other Minnesota game birds that once were abundant but now exist only in remnant populations, thanks to weather extremes and/or habitat loss.
Bobwhite quail are among these, also Hungarian partridge and prairie chickens. Add to this list sharp-tailed grouse, whose relatively scant Minnesota population is largely confined to the northwest part of the state, and ruffed grouse, which once flourished in the extensive (but now mostly denuded) woodlands between Minneapolis and Willmar.
Yet Minnesota has not always been a gracious host to pheasants. More than 90% of our farmland wetlands have been drained. Most woodlots and fence lines have been plowed under. Urban sprawl is rampant. And the state’s crop lands are routinely inundated with pesticides and other chemicals that kill the insects that pheasants and other birds need to survive.
Still, in some ways miraculously, Minnesota is expecting a 2020 pheasant season in which the state’s fall harvest might be the best in a half-dozen years or more, thanks in large part to the continuing efforts of Minnesota’s taxpayers and particularly its hunter-conservationists.
Following voter approval in 2008 of the sales-tax-funded Clean Water, Land and Legacy Act, wildlife land acquisitions and habitat enhancements have increased exponentially in Minnesota. This is in addition to the $67 million that Minnesota Pheasants Forever (PF) members have spent on habitat here since 1982, including the purchase of 401 properties that have been converted to 55,300 acres of state wildlife management areas and federal waterfowl production areas.
Headquartered in St. Paul, PF today has 130,000 members nationwide and 21,000 in Minnesota. Whether any of the latter are descendants of Minnesota Game Protective League members is unknown. What is known is that the same dedication to wildlife evident among state residents in the early 1900s lives on in PF members yet today.
When PF’s first fundraising banquet was held April 15, 1983, at the old Prom Ballroom in St. Paul, the 1950s heyday of Minnesota ringneck hunting was still fresh in people’s minds.
At that sold-out event, with 800 attendees, Gov. Rudy Perpich signed legislation establishing Minnesota’s first pheasant stamp, which the nascent bird group had pushed through the Legislature.
The rest is conservation history and is a credit to the tens of thousands of PF volunteers and staff who have worked tirelessly to ensure that pheasants here will indeed be forever.
One of those volunteers is Bob Dalager of Morris.
After reading my columns in 1982 proposing the new pheasant organization, Bob, an attorney, contacted me about starting a Stevens County PF chapter.
I told him if he put together a group of hunters for a meeting, newly appointed PF Executive Director Jeff Finden and I would travel to Morris to help jump-start the effort.
“So I wrote a letter to every hunter I knew in Stevens County, gave a press release to the local radio station and put an ad in our local newspaper, asking people to come to a meeting,’’ Dalager said last week.
An overflow crowd showed up, a Stevens County PF chapter was formed and the group’s first fundraising banquet featuring Bud Grant as speaker was planned.
These many years later, the Stevens County PF Chapter still is going strong.
Dalager still is going strong, too, and will be afield Saturday, drawn there like tens of thousands of others by the prospect of seeing a flushing rooster, one of the most beautiful sights in nature.