Tens of thousands of hunters clad in blaze-orange garb and accompanied by their scent-sniffing canines will launch another pheasant season this weekend, continuing a long and cherished tradition.
But it wasn’t always so.
About 130 years ago, there were no pheasants in Minnesota or anywhere else in America. The pheasant is native to China — among the first of countless imports now streaming here from Asia.
Yet today the gaudy bird with the outrageously long tail is synonymous with fall for many Minnesotans.
It all started because pheasants taste good.
The bird has been coveted as a gastronomical delight for thousands of years, and people began transplanting them elsewhere around the world. The first recorded stocking in America was 1733 in New York harbor, but that attempt, and many others, proved futile.
The first successful stocking occurred in 1880 in Oregon, and by 1892 hunters bagged 50,000 ringnecks there. Others were intrigued, and eventually pheasants were released in 40 of the 50 states.
They first were brought to Minnesota in 1905, when the Department of Game and Fish (predecessor of the Department of Natural Resources) released 70 pairs. None survived. Then in 1916, a game farm was established on Big Island in Lake Minnetonka and the Legislature appropriated $17,000 (equal to $316,000 today) for propagating pheasants, bobwhite quail and ruffed grouse.
Between 1916 and 1918, 4,000 adult pheasants were released and another 6,000 eggs were given to farmers and hunters interested in rearing and releasing pheasants. By 1922, pheasants had been uncaged in 78 of the state’s 87 counties.
The state’s first pheasant hunting season, just four days, was held in 1924 in Hennepin and Carver counties. Some 300 birds were shot. Two years later a 17-day season produced 27,000 birds.
Minnesota’s pheasant population exploded, aided by ideal habitat. The state then was dotted with small farms and diverse crops, as well as hay fields, pastures, some native prairie and many more wetlands. The landscape changes that favored pheasants hurt native sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens, species that remain here in small numbers.
In 1931, hunters harvested 1 million roosters from a pheasant population estimated at 4 million. Hunters had started to fill small towns across southern Minnesota each fall. The state’s record ringneck harvest occurred 10 years later when hunters bagged almost 1.8 million birds (including hens, which haven’t been legal to shoot for decades).
Beginning in the 1930s, the state DNR launched two gamebird-raising facilities, one at Madelia in the south and one at Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area near Forest Lake. The idea was to boost wild populations by raising pheasant chicks and releasing them, a concept that has since been deemed fruitless.
“Once the population has established itself, habitat and weather dictates what the population will be,” said Al Berner of Good Thunder, Minn., a retired DNR pheasant biologist who worked at Madelia.
But for decades the state program operated and was popular with hunters and farmers.
“We were running 100,000 pheasant chicks (a year) at Carlos Avery,” said Lloyd Knudson of Hugo, retired DNR wildlife manager who started as the game farm manager.
The adult pheasants were kept in large pens. “Every day, guys would go out and pick eggs, then bring them to a wash area before putting them in an incubator that could hold 40,000 pheasant eggs,” said Knudson. About 10,000 eggs a week would hatch, and day-old chicks were given to farmers, sportsmen’s clubs, 4-H and other groups that would raise and release them at about six weeks of age.
“The survival rate was terrible,” Knudson said. The operation at Madelia closed by the mid-1950s. But the agency and the public had seen the results of the initial stockings, so the DNR remained in the game-farm business at Carlos Avery until 1981.
“I don’t know anyone with a biological background that would defend that program as something that would provide more pheasants in the wild,” Knudson said.
Today, the DNR and conservation groups discourage the release of pen-reared birds, focusing instead on acquiring or improving habitat.
Ironically, the wild pheasant population didn’t need any boost. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, millions of acres of agricultural land were retired and placed into a federal Soil Bank program, which created even more pheasant habitat. The population remained sky-high with hunters routinely shooting 1 million birds each fall.
But then the Soil Bank went away, replaced by programs that encouraged conversion of wetlands and other habitat to row crops. Minnesota’s ringneck population crashed, exacerbated by a 1965 March blizzard that killed 90 percent of the state’s pheasants.
In 1967, hunters shot only 141,000 birds — the lowest modern harvest on record. And in 1969, the season was closed in the mistaken belief that would boost pheasant numbers. Wildlife biologists say rooster-only hunting has virtually no impact on the pheasant population.
It was a bleak time for pheasants and pheasant hunters. Pheasants Forever, a national conservation group, was formed in St. Paul in 1982 to try to boost ringnecks. And in 1985, the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was born, which paid farmers to take marginal lands out of production and plant them to grass. Ringneck harvest rose in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And from 2005 to 2008, Minnesota hunters bagged more than a half-million pheasants yearly — the best hunting in 40 years.
But a recent plunge in the number of acres enrolled in CRP has eliminated hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat, and, combined with poor weather, pheasant numbers again have dropped. Last year, hunters took home just 169,000 roosters, the lowest in 27 years.
The situation prompted Gov. Mark Dayton to announce last month that he will convene a summit of wildlife and farm experts later this year to find ways to boost the ringneck population. Dayton will be in Worthington on Saturday for his fourth annual Governor’s Pheasant Opener.
Meanwhile, pheasant hunters haven’t given up hope. Thousands will carry optimism along with their shotguns Saturday as they hike grasslands hoping to roust a rooster or two.
For a pheasant feast.