For a gal who grew up spending every fall hunting pheasants with family, you’d think I’d have been insanely curious about how these strikingly beautiful Chinese immigrants found their way to the Great Plains. Knowing me, I did look up these pretty birds in a well-used set of World Book encyclopedias. I must’ve settled for the simple answer that someone imported them from Asia. I’m certain the article was short and sweet, with few of the embellishments now found on the World Wide Web.
With the power of cyber space at my fingertips, I’ve since learned these ring neck wonders arrived first at Port Townsend in Washington State. An American consul general by the name of Owen Nickerson Denny discovered them during his service in China. There, local farmers netted and marketed these wild birds. This diplomat recognized not only their beauty but also their flavorful meat. According to Historyllink.org, Denny wrote a friend, saying, “These birds are delicious eating and will furnish fine sport.”
During his tenure in Asia, Denny bought enough birds to raise a fattened domestic flock for his own dining delight. As time grew near to return to the American Northwest, he conceived the idea of taking a breeding population home with him. He arranged in 1881to transport aboard the vessel Otago, 60 ring necks along with a few Mongolia sand grouse and chefoo partridges. In the shipment, he included native fruit trees and bamboo cuttings to transplant to his homeland. Only the pheasants and bamboo still exist in the wild.
While the birds survived the ocean voyage, they didn’t do well during the overland transport. Only a few lived long enough to establish homes on an island in the Columbia River. Authorities disagree on how well this population reproduced and expanded.
Still hoping to establish a successful breeding colony of these game birds, Denny imported a second group in 1882 and shipped them directly to Portland, Oregon, which was closer to the family homestead. These new imports quickly went native, and within a year, thriving populations expanded into surrounding counties. By 1892, Oregon established a pheasant-hunting season. If accounts are accurate, hunters harvested 50,000 of Denny’s pheasants on its first day.
In 1884, Denny arranged a third delivery to the original destination in Washington State. This time, the birds proliferated and expanded their territory into Canada. Anytime people see success, they duplicate it. As a result, hopeful sportsmen transported breeding pairs to other regions until you can now find descended stock in at least 19 American states. No longer called Denny’s pheasants, populations did so well in South Dakota that over a million now live there, and legislators named them the state bird.
Despite reduced populations the last few years in Kansas, this is still a great environment for these Asian immigrants. Our many fields of grain offer optimal food and cover for these beautiful and tasty birds. Just as many of our ancestors came to this land as new arrivals and thrived, so have these creatures. They are as much a part of what makes this state amazing as we are.