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The Ring-Necked Pheasant

in North Dakota

Pheasants: The Past and the Future

gif -- Past and Future Logo Among the most successful of introduced game species, ring-necked pheasants are a North Dakota favorite.

No game species introduced to this continent has been as successful as the ring-necked pheasant. One of more than 40 species originating in Asia and Asia Minor, these birds from the genus Phasianus are perhaps better known than any of the other 15 groups of pheasants in the world. All are related to the partridges, quails, grouse and guinea-fowls which make up the order Galliformes or chicken-like birds.

Archeological evidence suggests that large pheasants lived in southern France in the Miocene period, some 13 million years ago. The Greeks knew the bird in the 10th Century B.C. and we have adopted their name for the species, Phasianus ornis (phasian bird), derived from the Phasis River (now Rion) near the Caucasus Mountains. The Chinese knew the pheasant some 3,000 years ago, but the Romans are considered responsible for the spread of pheasants in western Europe. When Julius Caesar invaded England in the first century B.C., the pheasant followed.

It wasn't until 1733 that the pheasant appeared in North America, when several pairs of the black-necked strain were introduced in New York. Other pheasant varieties were released in New Hampshire and New Jersey later in the 18th century. Not until 1881, when Judge O.N. Denny released some 100 pairs of Chinese ring-necks in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, did the pheasant really gain a foothold in the United States. Since then, pheasants have been propagated and released by government agencies, clubs and individuals, and for all practical purposes are established everywhere on the continent that suitable habitat exists.

North Dakota Game and Fish Department files show the earliest stockings in North Dakota were 75 birds in 1910. These birds were housed at the old St. John Hatchery and some birds were raised from eggs produced by these adult hens. There were no important introductions again until 1915 when pheasant stocking operations were carried on by the Bottineau and Grafton state game farms.

jpg -- Pheasants in a field.
Pheasant stocking in North Dakota began in 1910.

In 1911, 40 pairs of pheasants were purchased at Grafton at $4.75 per pair. These were apparently some of the birds originating from a dozen eggs purchased from Oregon by W. H. Williams of Grafton in 1904. In 1917 a well-publicized release of 28 pheasants was made on the Kendal farm near Oakes in Dickey County. Undoubtedly the biggest stocking undertaken in those early years by farmers, sportsmen, and the Game and Fish Department was in the spring of 1932 when 15,460 wild birds were trapped in Dickey, Sargent, and Richland counties and released in 45 counties across the state. The estimated cost was $.50 per bird, and they were captured by the use of spotlights at night.

Stocking of pheasants in North Dakota has continued since then. From 1910 through 1987, 226,667 pen-reared pheasants have been released and 50,191 wild birds have been trapped and transplanted to other areas in the state. Which stockings were the most important in North Dakota is unknown. As early as 1930 it was apparent that the first areas to experience rapid population increases were located in the south, especially in Dickey, Sargent and Richland counties. It was in this area that the first open season on pheasants in North Dakota was held in 1931.

Although stockings since the 1930s have introduced new genetic variation to the pheasant population in the state, they have done little, if anything, to increase total pheasant numbers, which are largely dependent upon habitat availability. Once viable populations are established, land-use patterns are the most important factor in pheasant survival. Although the pheasant is highly adaptable, it, like any other organism, has requisites of food and cover.

The state's highest pheasant populations occur in areas devoted to row-crop agriculture where 20 to 45 percent of the land is in small grains and wild hay, and less than 40 percent is in corn and alfalfa. Where cultivated lands and permanent vegetation are interspersed, pheasants thrive.

As might be expected, pheasant populations in an area without much cropland are not stable, and greatest numbers are found near marshes, shelterbelts, streams or small cultivated areas. In contrast to prime pheasant range, wild sunflowers, grasses and ragweed become very important to pheasants in areas that are not cultivated, and like the prairie grouse, the adaptable ringneck in those areas also eats a variety of berries, particularly in winter. During the relatively short history of pheasants in North Dakota it has become apparent that even a small amount of cover means much to pheasants. Land set-aside booms have come and gone, and the pheasant has fluctuated with these increases and decreases in cover. Where intensive farming has removed fence rows, drained and leveled wetlands, and narrowed roadsides, pheasant numbers have dropped.

From a game manager's perspective, every unit of land has a given carrying capacity. Where nesting habitat, winter cover or winter foods are lacking, carrying capacity is diminished.

Interspersion or diversity of cover types also determines the productive capability of pheasant range. A solid 640 acres of corn or grass might provide abundant food or nesting cover, but it lacks other habitat types essential to a pheasant's life.

Thus, like any other organism, the pheasant is completely dependent on suitable habitat. Unfortunately, habitat that produces high wildlife numbers is often incompatible with agricultural or urban land-use patterns. Nevertheless, many methods of habitat management and restoration can be wholly compatible with farm improvement practices and urban land development. Implementation of these practices by private landowners could greatly improve the outlook for the ring-necked pheasant in North Dakota.

jpg -- Pheasant in Tall Grass
The addition of thousands of Conservation Reserve Program acres
to the habitat base in North Dakota has brightened the prospects
for pheasants in the near future.

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