The story of the ring-necked pheasant is a classic success story of an immigrant making a home for himself in the U.S. and thriving—until recently. The advent of new farming practices have taken what used to be quality pheasant habitat, plowed it under and put it in to crop production. Areas that used to harbor large wild pheasant populations now hold no birds at all. To offset the loss of pheasant hunting opportunities, state game departments and private hunting clubs release pen-raised birds each year. Is this really good for the ring-necked pheasant?
History of Pheasants in the U.S.
The first ring-necked pheasants were introduced in Oregon in 1881. 26 birds were released and, 11 years after their introduction, Oregon held a 75 day pheasant season, during which hunters harvested over 50,000 birds.
Ring-necks were later introduced in 39 other states. Unlike other introduced species, pheasants adapted well to their new home and flourished in hedgerows, fallow fields and creek bottoms of agricultural lands. The combination of food and cover near ag fields made perfect pheasant habitat.
The population continued to thrive until the early 1970s when more efficient harvest methods, increased use of pesticides, and removal of hedgerows and other “wasted” farm ground caused the amount of habitat to decrease.
Stocking to Replace Wild Birds
Around the beginning of the 20th century, game departments began stocking pen-raised pheasants to offset hunter harvests. These stocking operations continued as the number of wild birds decreased and, in some areas, the stocked birds are all that is left.
Pen-raised pheasants provide hunting opportunities in areas where they would otherwise be unavailable, but they cannot replace wild birds. The annual survival rate for stocked birds is less than 10%, not nearly enough to support a population.
Some biologists worry that stocking pheasants in areas that hold wild birds will “dilute” the population’s wildness and lower overall survival rates. Another concern is that introducing stocked birds causes natural predators like foxes, coyotes, and bobcats to key in on these areas, placing more pressure on any wild birds also in the area.
Can a Wild Population Be Re-established?
A wild population of pheasants can be re-established if given enough quality habitat. The number one limiting factor to pheasants is habitat. Pheasants thrive in areas that are 70% open ag fields and 30% native grasses and other forms of low cover. Areas as large as 20,000 contiguous acres are required to a support a wild population.
Once suitable habitat has been established, wild birds can be transplanted and successfully reintroduced to the area.
To Stock or Not to Stock?
The answer to this question depends on your goals. If you are attempting to re-establish or grow a wild population of pheasants, your time and money will be better spent on improving your habitat.
However, if you are just looking to have some pheasants to hunt, pen-raised birds provide shooting opportunities and offer dog owners a quality training session and, if there are no wild pheasants in the area, stocking pheasants doesn’t hurt anything.
The Future of Pheasants
The future of wild ring-necked pheasants in the U.S. is uncertain.
Private landowners, state agencies, and groups like Pheasants Forever are working to make sure that hunting opportunities will continue for years to come, but loss of habitat to crop production and urban sprawl continues to threaten wild populations Stocking operations will continue to provide hunting opportunities to areas where wild pheasants have been pushed out.