Tom Lounsbury: Michigan wild pheasant stands test of time
Wild pheasants in my neck of the woods had a great and fairly mild winter last year, and there was a great carryover of birds.
But the wet and cold months of May and June, a key nesting timeframe for wild pheasants, caused me some concern, because they could have had an impact on nesting hens as well as hens with freshly hatched chicks.
However, the nice number of hens with broods that I saw during the summer let me know that all went well despite the wet spring weather.
What is known as the “first nesting” is usually the most important because hens will lay the most eggs then, and about 90% of wild roosters harvested in a given year were hatched that summer, despite all their long tails and glorious plumage.
Wild pheasant hens, by the way, don’t raise two to three broods a year. They will, however, make up to three attempts to hatch their eggs (this far north), but only if the first two tries aren’t successful.
Once she hatches a brood, the hen seems to have done her duty no matter if her brood survives or not.
In an early fall issue of a national outdoor magazine a couple of years ago, I read an interesting article about pheasant hunting in North America and was pleased to see the Thumb of Michigan mentioned in the “top 10” as one of the places in the country to go pheasant hunting.
The Thumb wasn’t at the top of the list, but the fact that it received honorable mention underscores the fact that pheasant hunting in Michigan is alive and well.
Certainly, the hunting here doesn’t rank up there with South Dakota and some other states, but through the ups and downs in the wild bird population — some of the reasons known and some yet unknown — Michigan’s wild “ring-necks” have held on.
A distinct key to healthy pheasant numbers is, of course, proper grassland habitat, as well as the wonderfully plentiful acres that have been provided in the Thumb by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has been a major factor in this regard.
What have also greatly helped in this region are the volunteer and fundraising efforts provided by the Thumb Chapter of Pheasants Forever (PF) that works diligently with private landowners in creating and maintaining constructive wild pheasant habitat.
This is clearly a great asset to ongoing CRP acres because a crucial fact to all this is that 97% of the Thumb’s wild pheasant range is found on private lands.
Constructive CRP guidelines for pheasant habitat also enhance the environment for a wide variety of wildlife species, from butterflies and songbirds to quail, waterfowl, turkeys and deer, not mention aiding the state’s water quality.
Another great effort is the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative (MPRI), which began in 2011 and has seen a number of landowner cooperatives in southern Michigan which work together with neighbors to form proper and continuous habitat on private lands.
The one I’m most familiar with is the Mayville Cooperative in the Thumb, which is creating some very positive results, as are the other MPRI cooperatives.
I’ve long looked upon Michigan’s wild pheasant as a very “political bird." Since its numbers plummeted in the 1960s and 1970s due primarily to fast-changing farming techniques and a loss of critical habitat, the “ups” of the wild bird numbers are clearly related to government programs which allow farmlands to remain idle for certain periods of time.
I saw a distinct blossom in the Thumb’s pheasant numbers with the onset of CRP in the 1980s. Pheasants reached a noticeably high number in 1992 and dropped some after that, but the numbers have remained stable thanks to ongoing CRP efforts.
The pheasant is not a native wildlife species to North America, but like many Americans who can trace their lineage back to the Old World, it has become nationalized and has clearly found its niche in this country with a strong following.
The pheasant belongs to the Order Galliformes, which includes chickens and peacocks. Its original range covers Asia from Siberia to Burma, and the many pheasant races vary in type and appearance according to their native range.
Trade eventually brought pheasants to mainland Europe, and Julius Caesar is credited with bringing pheasants to the British Isles. From there, they made their first appearance in North America when they were introduced to parts of New England in the 18th century.
There is no record of these being successful transplanting efforts, and no doubt the more forested habitat at that time was not conducive to the pheasant spreading out far in the wild.
The first successful pheasant transplant in this country occurred in 1881, when genuine Chinese ring-necks were shipped in directly from China and released in Oregon.
The birds flourished and propagated and the first hunting season was held in that state only eight years later, with an estimate of more than 50,000 birds being harvested on the opening day. This caught the attention of sportsmen in other states, and there was a movement to establish wild pheasants elsewhere in the country.
The first pheasant release in Michigan was near Holland in 1895 and was performed by a local shooting club. Other sportsmen’s groups would follow suit on occasion, but this was on a small scale. The pheasant made its major debut in southern Michigan, when the state conservation agency began pen-rearing and releasing birds in 1917 (these birds originally came from various midwestern game farms that in turn had gotten their original eggs shipped in from game farms in England).
This was so successful, due to a perfect agriculture-rich habitat, that some farmers began looking upon the blossoming wild ring-necks as pests, and the first Michigan pheasant season was conducted in 1925.
The early 1940s were the real boom-time for Michigan pheasants, with Michigan ranking as the top pheasant hunting state in the nation and the Thumb being the hot spot. For reasons unknown, there was a major crash in the state’s pheasant numbers in 1947. It would begin to rebound in the early 1950s, and then another crash would occur in the 1960s.
I personally never gave up my annual pheasant hunting excursions despite that second crash, and having pursued pheasants since the late 1950s (as a farm kid), I have some firsthand insight into the more recent history of the Michigan wild pheasant.
One fact I observed is that hunting surplus roosters has no impact on the overall pheasant numbers that will be available the following year, even during the “down” periods.
Trying to bank old roosters just doesn’t work because most don’t survive that long in the wild (the average lifespan of a wild pheasant is less than one year). Releasing pen-reared birds into the wild these days with an abundance of predators, especially those with wings, doesn’t do a whole lot to bolster wild numbers much, either, as they typically don’t survive as well or as long as wild “hen-reared” birds.
However, some state wildlife agencies do release birds each year to assist meeting the demand, and pheasant hunting is a popular pastime as well as being a distinct financial plus for certain states (such as South Dakota).
Michigan is stepping into this arena this fall, thanks to the Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative (MPHI) which is the brainchild of Ken Dalton of Lapeer, who has worked diligently for the past three years to see it happen.
Thanks to the cooperative efforts of the Association of Michigan Game Breeders and Hunting Preserves, pheasants are being released in 11 State Game Areas in southern Michigan (refer to the 2019 Michigan Hunting Digest) for the Sunday, October 20 pheasant opener, and various releases will continue during the pheasant season, which includes December.
I fully support this initiative for not only revitalizing an interest in pheasant hunting in our great state, but also an interest in small-game hunting in general, which has been steadily losing hunter numbers (during Michigan’s pheasant heyday, there were more small-game hunters than deer hunters).
The first pheasants released by Michigan in 1917 were predominantly Chinese ring-neck pheasant, with a dash of Mongolian blood in the mix. Escapees from game preserves, as well as undocumented private releases, have added to the wild Michigan pheasant gene pool. Ultimately, our state's pheasant is a hybrid of races that has adapted to its environment.
The most recent introduction of genes to the Michigan wild pheasant gene pool was the “black-necked” pheasant that came directly from the Sichuan Province of China and was introduced by the MDNR in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
This offered pure wild genetics, which I personally appreciated. While I remember seeing a few “black-necks” in the field during that timeframe, wild roosters today still maintain that distinctive white ring around their necks, hence the moniker “ring-neck”.
Since the “black-neck” era, I have noticed that certain roosters taken while hunting have more green in their plumage coloration and some have ivory “spurs” instead of the more common ebony spurs.
Wild pheasants clearly require proper grassland habitat, and, thanks to various government programs such as CRP, it still abounds in areas of the Thumb. Hopefully, it will continue.
For a fact, folks, as always, I am really looking forward to October 20, something I’ve been doing since I was a kid, which means I’ve been at it annually for quite a while!
Email Tom Lounsbury at firstname.lastname@example.org