All 50 states have official state birds as their adopted avian symbols. Minnesota’s, of course, is the common loon, the only state claiming this emblematic bird as its own. Several states share the same bird, as the cardinal, meadowlark, and robin are. And while one would think that each state’s citizens and legislatures would have chosen native birds to represent their states, two states did not -- South Dakota and Rhode Island, the latter choosing a chicken, the Rhode Island Red, as its state bird.
And our neighbor to the west, South Dakota, chose perhaps the most colorful bird of all -- non-native or otherwise -- as its state bird, the ring-necked pheasant, which is also known as the Chinese ring-necked pheasant. Indeed, the ring-necked pheasant, a bird that has established itself throughout North America’s grasslands, especially within the Great Plains but in many other semi-open landscapes and farmland from a few released stock in the late 1800s, are known by many a hunter that takes to the field each fall to hunt them as, “The King of the Game Birds.”
Chinese ring-necked pheasants were first released in Oregon in 1881. A man by the name of Owen Nickerson Denny had 60 birds shipped across the Pacific Ocean to Washington and then released the surviving birds along the Columbia River in his home state of Oregon followed by a couple more releases in Willamette Valley a few years later. More pheasant introductions by more people across the United States followed Denny’s releases. South Dakota had its first pheasant release in 1898.
Today, the ring-necked pheasant is found across much of the northern tier states, as well as areas along the northern East Coast and on grasslands of the Northern Great Plains and the West. There are also ring-necked pheasants in parts of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Globally the population is estimated at around 50 million, with about 31 percent of this estimate occurring in North America. And while the ring-necked pheasant population in South Dakota has fluctuated widely since the first release some 120 years ago, the state’s vast farmlands and grasslands holds anywhere from around 5 to 10 million birds annually.
With South Dakota’s pheasant plenitude, it’s no wonder the state named the ring-necked pheasant in 1943 as its state bird. In fact it was during the 1940s that the ring-necked pheasant population reached its zenith in South Dakota. Population estimates during this pheasant heyday were anywhere from 11 million to over 16 million birds. Still, even today, no state has more pheasants than South Dakota.
Although I have hunted pheasants throughout western Minnesota’s Big Stone, Lac Qui Parle, Stevens, and Douglas counties, including many isolated pockets of pheasant habitat surrounding the Otter Tail County dairy farm where I grew up on (I also raised pheasants as an FFA member of my high school chapter), my only South Dakota pheasant hunt occurred in 2006.
I’ll never forget that lone hunt. Four of us Bertha boys gathered for a trip to Eureka near the North Dakota border where we not only enjoyed observing hundreds of pheasants on both public and private land that we hunted and drove by, but for the hospitality of those good folks we encountered while hunting the countryside and patronizing the businesses of their small town, too. In South Dakota, you see, pheasants are big business. I liken the economic boost that these birds provide for the rural South Dakota communities to what walleyes and whitetails mean to Minnesota’s economy. The infusion of the sportsman and sportswoman dollar is substantial and very important beyond measure.
Ring-necked pheasants, the non-native species of bird they are, are nevertheless an avian native for all intents and purposes. The crowing and beautifully plumaged rooster and the cryptic colored hen are gorgeous and hardy birds to be sure. Found here in Minnesota in just about every county but the heavily forested northeastern third, ring-necked pheasants, a bird related to our native wild turkey, ruffed grouse, prairie chicken, spruce grouse, and sharp-tailed grouse, is here to stay and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.