The ring-necked pheasant is an import that’s become as American as apple pie.
The bird is prized by birdwatchers, landowners and especially by hunters who have built traditions and industries around pursuing North America’s most colorful upland game bird, and one of the most delicious.
Pheasants are hunted in 24 states, including Washington, where the pheasant season opened on Saturday.
The ring-necked pheasant is one of about 40 pheasant species that evolved in and around Asia. The first documented release in the United States was in New York in 1733, according to Pheasants Forever, a national conservation group.
George Washington is reported to have released pheasants at Mount Vernon during his presidency.
More important to the West are the 100 pairs of Chinese ring-necked pheasants released in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1881.
The birds flourished in the agricultural practices of the period and were propagated and stocked by state agencies, hunting clubs and individuals until they were established virtually everywhere with suitable habitat.
Pheasants were introduced in Montana in the late 1880s and early 1900s from stock already introduced and flourishing in Oregon, Washington and Utah.
The birds began declining around the 1970s, as farming practices were changing to bigger fields and fewer fence rows while producers were burning and plowing riparian areas and brushy draws.
The Conservation Reserve Program helped the pheasant hold its own or make a comeback by paying farmers to leave some lands untilled.
If they have habitat with a combination of dense cover and woody protection, pheasants can survive most harsh winters because they are hardy enough to hunker in cover for several days without feeding, according to Pheasants Forever biologists.
Good pheasant habitat includes a diversity of vegetation, including:
• Thickets to provide shade in the summer and shelter from winter’s wind driven snow.
• Woody plants especially with thorns for protection from predators.
• Wetlands or weedy patches for roosting or loafing.
• Grain fields for food and green vegetation, fruit and insects for water.
Pheasants thrive when these habitats are connected by travel lanes of heavily vegetated fencerows, ditches and field edges.
States such as South Dakota have taken CRP and not-so-clean farming to the bank, making pheasants an important cash crop that lures paying hunters to thousands of acres of private lands.
Rooster pheasants – which can sprint like Olympic champions to frustrate hunters and their dogs – are the most colorful of upland game birds, with distinctive red wattles, a kaleidoscope of colors on their feathers and long tails.
Hens are smaller, drab-brown birds. Pheasants are the only upland bird in the West in which the hens are generally protected from hunting.
“Biologically there is no reason not to hunt hens,” said Bruce Auchley of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department.
But hunters and farmers want it that way, so that’s the way it is.
Pheasants are short-lived birds. About 60-70 percent of the region’s pheasants die each year with or without hunting, Auchley said.
Aside from good habitat, the weather during the spring nesting season is the key to good pheasant production.
That’s the downside to this year’s pheasant season in parts of Montana and Washington. The wet weather around the early June peak of the pheasant hatch was deadly to chicks, biologists said.
Pheasant numbers are low this year, they added.
But they can bounce back quickly if they get favorable late-spring weather next year.