History of the Pheasant

in South Dakota

The Chinese-ring-necked pheasants, in South Dakota and throughout the United States, were brought over from Shanghai, shipped to Port Townsend, Washington, in 1881. However, most of the pheasants did not survive the trip and were unable to make their new home in the United States. More ring-necked pheasants to Portland in 1882. More pheasants were released in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where this time the release was successful.

Two gentlemen by the name of Mr. Cooper and Mr. Ebbert, bought several pairs of pheasants from a Pennsylvania game farm and introduced them into woody areas of their farms near Doland, South Dakota in 1908. Due to a harsh winter they had that year, a majority of the pheasants did not survive. Their efforts the following year, however, were successful!

Excited by the success, other sportsmen started to release pheasants near Redfield, South Dakota and in 1911, the South Dakota Department of Game and Fish released 48 pairs of pheasants near Redfield that were purchased with privately donated money. That same year, the state bought about 200 pairs of pheasants and gave them to farmers throughout the state. It is estimated that about 1,700 Chinese ring-necked pheasants purchased by the State Game Commission were displayed at the South Dakota State Fair in  1913.

In 1919, the shots heard around South Dakota were fired when the first opening pheasant season took place on October 30th in Spink County. Game wardens estimated that 200 pheasants  of the estimated 100,000 pheasant population were harvested.

In 1943, state Representative  Paul Kretschmar, of Eureka, delivered a speech to the South Dakota Legislature suggesting naming the ring neck pheasant as the State bird. Pheasant hunting became a substantial part of the state's income along with the national recognition. A bill designating the Chinese ring-neck pheasant as the state’s official bird was passed by the Legislature in 1943 making South Dakota a state that promotes killing and eating the official symbol.

Pheasant numbers have varied through the years, but that passion of hunting pheasants has not. Movie stars such as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Robert Taylor; baseball players Ty Cobb, Bob Feller and Gabby Hartnett; and politicians such as former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, have all hunted pheasants in South Dakota.

The pheasant season continues to be a tradition for thousands of avid hunters across the world. Today, hunting in South Dakota gives South Dakota a one billion dollar industry.

Nesting and Courtship

As spring approaches, changes occur in the ring-necked pheasant. As the days get longer the pituitary gland in the brain becomes very active, triggering  hormones which stimulate courtship behavior. Roosters will begin to fluff their feathers and force blood into their wattles to make that bright red glow, which marks the beginning of the reproductive cycle. Plenty of shelter and feed needs to be adequate through the winter to help the hens reserve energy to support eggs and to produce the heat necessary for incubation.

In  late March to the middle of May, roosters claim their territories. Within these areas, territories will range in size from a few acres to a half section of land or more. The roosters strut and crow, going into battle to maintain their territories. A rooster's crowing, followed by a rapid beating of wings, warns others  that this  territory is occupied and should not be messed with.

The best part of the most dramatic phase of courtship occurs after the hen is attracted to a rooster's territory. He approaches the hen, tilts his body toward her, spreads his tail feathers, and extends one wing downward. His head is held low with ear tufts erect and with his neck feathers flared. The wattles on the sides of his head turn a vivid shade of red and swell until they nearly touch on top of the head. 

As the nesting season approaches, hens become more attentive, and finally they select roosters with which they will breed. Roosters will gather as many as 12 hens to breed. Bachelor roosters like to pick fights in the breeding population trying to steal hens from other roosters. A spring sex ratio of five to twelve hens per rooster is sufficient to ensure the pheasant reproduction is a success. The hen will choose a nest site, lay her eggs and then incubate them. Once the hens are bred, the mating season ends and the rooster leaves.

Nests are established in a variety of vegetation types. Most of the time, pheasants rely upon small grains for nesting. Small grain harvests will normally begin around July, after the peak of the pheasant hatch. If a hen's nest gets destroyed early enough, the hen will re-breed and lay another batch of eggs, which is typically a smaller amount of eggs. 

Predators don't destroy nests in grain nesting because of how spread out it is over a large area. Nest predators, such as skunks, raccoons and badges, are more likely to hunt along fence rows which  has cover for a nests.

Mowing, however, is one of the largest destruction of nests. Alfalfa mowing is a death trap for incubating hens. Chicks that do hatch before mowing are usually too young to escape the mower and hens are often killed with their broods as they try to protect them.

Pheasant hens lay their eggs at a rate of one egg per day and stay near  their nest until all their eggs are laid.  The average nest for a pheasant is about twelve eggs.

Just prior to egg laying, hens shed breast feathers, exposing a bare patch of skin. This "brood patch" is well supplied with surface blood vessels, and keeps the eggs at the proper temperature for hatching. During egg laying, hens stay long enough to deposit the egg and then they leave the area until the incubation period begins, in which the hen will only leave the nest for a short period of time each day. 

Pheasant eggs require about  twenty-three days of incubation. During this time, the hen will turn the eggs often over a two-week period. The incubation of pheasant  eggs begins at the same time and all the eggs will hatch within a few hours of each other.

When the chick is completely developed  it uses uses its egg tooth,  to cut the large end of the egg. The chicks pop out of the egg as a wet ball of fluff supported by spindly legs. Pheasant chicks are capable of leaving the nest soon after hatching and will be lead away from the nest by the hen as soon as they are dry.

Farming operations, predation, and nest abandonment are the three major reasons that pheasant nesting fails.. All three have varying effects from area to area and from year to year, but generally when abandonment rates rise, nest failures from predation and farming operations fall, and vice versa. It is thought that high nesting success occurs in years when spring weather is warm and dry.

as habitat is one of the largest factors for a successful hatch. The larger the habitat area the higher rate of success there is for a better hatch.

Today, farming traditions have changed so much that it is difficult for pheasants to nest. The better conservation practices that we can employ, the better the chance of us seeing more pheasants in the fall.