The Pheasant Journey

Pheasant hunting, be it a classic driven “shoot” in the English style, or hunting over pointers and setters in the American West, is an irresistible lure for many outdoorspeople. It has to be somehow related to the fact that pheasants and people have shared the journey around the world for thousands of years. Pheasants travelled around the world with people, and people are travelling around the world after pheasants.

The ring-necked, or common, pheasant probably evolved in modern China, and then spread out west all the way to the Black Sea and the Balkans, with or without human help. Fossils prove that Europeans dined on this delicious bird as far back as 6,000 b. c. The pheasant got its name (Phasianus colchicus) from two rivers in what is now Georgia: the Phasis (now Rion), and the Colchis. It was in the valley of Colchis, where the Argonauts had sailed for the Golden Fleece, that the Romans first discovered a different treasure: a golden-plumed bird, with short wings, long tail, strong flight and tasty flesh.

A cock ringneck pheasant.
Greeks and Romans first encountered the pheasant in the valley of Colchis, and modern hunters will agree the bird is as much of a treasure as The Golden Fleece.

From there on began the documented co-journey of the pheasant and the humans. The Romans loved everything related to luxury, from sophisticated cuisine to things of beauty. The pheasant satisfied both needs and was bred in aviaries, like chicken, wherever the imperial eagle banner was planted in the triumphal days of Rome. As the empire collapsed, the aviaries were broken, the birds roamed free, and the offspring of the survivors colonized Europe from Britain, Italy, and Spain to the Czech Republic, Romania, and Bulgaria.

If denizens of these lands wanted to dine on pheasant, they now had to hunt it, and it’s no surprise that the pheasant soon became one of the most prized game birds. The nobility pursued it with falcons and hawks, and the humble peasant couldn’t always resist the temptation to sneak into the lord’s covert and set a few snares. Firearms were applied to pheasant hunting almost as soon as they were invented. Early matchlock muskets were good only for hitting motionless birds perched on trees. When pheasants learned to avoid this danger, lighter and handier shotguns, suitable for shooting flying, had to be developed. Many breeds of dogs appeared only because of pheasant hunting.

Europeans loved the pheasant so much that they took the bird with them as they spread around the globe. Unlike the Romans, this time it was as game species. The plan was to release the birds, wait for them to multiply, and then hunt them. It worked at some places, like New Zealand, but not in others. The English governors of North American colonies, perchance to feel themselves more at home in the New World, tried releasing pheasants, but did not succeed. It took the true pioneering spirit to get it right.

Pheasant hunters in traditional European attire
Once kept in aviaries for its flesh and beauty, the pheasant continued its co-journey with humans around the world as a game bird.

Owen Nickerson Denny came to Oregon as a child, his parents being among the state’s first European settlers. His wife, Gertrude Jane Hall Denny, had the same heritage. The couple kept moving West until they landed at the East – Mr. Denny was appointed the U. S. Consul in China. It was there where he was introduced to pheasants, which the local peasants trapped and sold as a delicacy. Owen Denny had an idea that the pheasant would be a nice addition to the fauna of his home state. Three shipments of pheasant were made, in 1881, 1882 and 1884, and the birds took to their new home so well that the state of Oregon had its first hunting season as early as 1892.

One could argue that this makes the pheasant an invasive species, but this would be only a half-truth. The thing about the American pheasant is that it wasn’t introduced into the original pre-European habitat, but into a new habitat created along with wheat and corn fields. As some researchers point out, the history of pheasant-human coexistence in agricultural landscape dates back to some 10,000 years ago in China, where the original birds came from, so the bird is a natural addition for agricultural environment. It was a new species for a new habitat.

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Habitat is the key word for the pheasant. The species is seldom threatened by legal, regulated hunting, and when it is, the threat is that the birds released to supplement overhunted local stock infuse the original population’s genes. This is how Britain lost its endemic form of the pheasant, that had a black rather than white collar around its neck, as the Chinese pheasants were introduced into the country in the late XVIII century, followed by other subspecies, including Mongolian pheasant and Reeves’ pheasant. Today it’s said that the Japanese green pheasant is threatened in a similar way. Illegal subsistence hunting and habitat loss are another story.

The pheasant has marched through the USA triumphantly all until 1950s, both through natural dispersal and as a result of organized introduction. Then the numbers began to dwindle, as new high-intensity agricultural methods were introduced that left little cover to nest and raise chicks. Adoption of the federal Crop Reservation Program (CRP) in the 1980s left wide areas of farmland unplowed, and brought the pheasant numbers back on the rise. That’s why every time there’s talk about discontinuation of the CRP, hunters and farmers all over the American West are alarmed.

Pheasant hunting in America
Pheasant hunting in America is one of the most challenging bird hunting experiences ever.

Up to ten million pheasants are harvested each year in North America, mostly in the CRP states. Many hunters come there to hunt pheasants and other wildlife that benefits from cover provided by CRP, and the industry that has built itself around hunting tourism has a major positive impact on landowners’ revenues and local employment. It also helps preserve biodiversity in agricultural reasons, so it’s a win-win situation.

Valuable and vulnerable in the same degree, the pheasant was one of the species that started wildlife management. The climate of most parts of Europe is too severe for pheasants to thrive without human help.  The nobility quickly realized that one couldn’t have a reliable supply of birds to hunt without protection from human and non-human predators, feeding in winter times, and other “game preservation” methods. British gamekeepers went as far as replacing the eggs in wild pheasants’ nests with dummies, incubating the eggs under domestic hens, and replacing them back just as the chicks were ready to hatch.

Gradually these early methods were replaced by breeding and releasing pen-raised birds, which was of course more cost-efficient. Most of the twenty million pheasants bagged each year in Europe are pen-raised birds. Some may say it’s more agriculture than hunting, especially given that the meat of the harvested birds is sold to restaurants and stores, but like with most kinds of hunting, an outside view is often too offset to provide a true picture. One should better experience European driven pheasant hunting before passing judgment.

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A traditional display of harvested pheasants after a driven hunt or shoot in Europe
No birds are wasted when a European driven hunt takes place. They’ll all find their way to stores and restaurant kitchens.

Shooting pen-raised birds has gotten a bad name among hunting and non-hunting public alike. A lot depends, however, on when you release the birds, and how you shoot them. Let out a day or two before the hunt, and shot over bird dogs, pen-raised birds are hardly a challenge. That’s why most people who practice this sort of hunting use .410 and 28 gauge shotguns. But in most European countries the pheasants are released as soon as they learn to fly, a few months before the season opens. Then, they are driven to the guns, rather than walked up. A driven pen-raised birds flies as hard and fast as a wild one, and in fact it’s a matter of pride for British “shoot” owners to make their pheasants as challenging to shoot as possible. Anything smaller than a 12 gauge game load will cripple too many “rocketers” (as extra-high flying pheasants are called in England), and many British shots abandon their beloved Purdey and Holland&Holland side-by-sides for sturdier Italian over/unders to shoot 1 ¼ oz and even 1 ⅜ oz loads.

But if you’re looking for pheasants that are challenging to hunt, not just to shoot, your destination should be the American West. The birds there are as wild as the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains themselves. Hunters typically have to walk till their legs drop off before they can find any birds in the boundless prairies. And a pheasant found is very far from a pheasant killed. It takes a lot of shooting skills and firepower to bring down. While most upland bird hunting is a case for a double-barreled shotgun, with pheasants that third (or fourth, where legal) shot is often essential. It’s hard to imagine a shotgun more iconic to pursue American pheasants with than the classic Model 12 Winchester, or another old all-American pump gun, although the new generation of semiautomatics, lightweight and reliable, does the job just as well.

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Good dogs are a great help for a pheasant hunter, but good pheasant dogs are hard to find. The birds know perfectly well when to run, and when to flush, and are some of the most difficult quarries for any bird dog, pointing or flushing. Most upland bird hunting is a solitary pursuit, but pheasant hunters in the West often have to group, with some working the field, and others blocking the escape routes of the birds that run or flush out of range. Experience is vital to make the right decision on where to go, and what to do, and few dogs from other regions have the stamina and the skills to work the pheasant. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep company with an experienced hunter for your first pheasant hunts, or book a reputable guide.

A dog almost caught a pheasant that is taking off
Bad dog! You don’t usually want your bird dog to chase a flushed bird like that, but there’s too much excitement when pheasants are around!

But the long journey rewards you with some of the best bird hunting in the world. The birds are tough to get, but when you finally hold the golden-plumed, long-tailed rooster in your hand, you’ll feel satisfied not only with its magnificence, but also with the fact that you’ve deserved this trophy. Small wonder so many hunters flock to these states in the pheasant season that it’s sometimes hard to book a motel room!

Today, the journey of the pheasant around the world is probably over. It has inhabited, or was introduced to, all suitable habitat, and even if there’s any such place left, modern ideas about stable ecosystems and invasive species will stop any pheasant introduction project in its tracks. Now is time for people to travel after the pheasant. It’s safe to say more hunters travel to hunt pheasants then after any other bird.

The American West has long since become the Mecca for uncompromising pheasant aficionados. The classic British driven “shoots”, that were once exclusive to lords and dukes (and their friends), are now available for everyone. Pheasant hunting on the Continent would satisfy even the most demanding Brit. Pheasants are literally hunted all over the world, including such exotic locations as Mauritius and Pakistan.


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