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Michigan's Wild Pheasant
Pheasant Hunting in Michigan
By: Tom Lounsbury
Brace of Thumb wild roosters taken
with a 28ga Remington pump and #5
shot loads [Tom Lounsbury Photo]
Michigan's Wild Pheasant
By: Tom Lounsbury
In an early fall issue of a national outdoor magazine, I recently read an interesting article about pheasant
hunting in North America. I was pleased to see the Thumb of Michigan being mentioned in the “top 10” places in
the country to go pheasant hunting. It wasn’t at the top of the list, but the fact that it received honorable mention
points out to the fact that pheasant hunting in Michigan is still alive and well.
Certainly the hunting here doesn’t rank up there today with South Dakota and some other mid-western 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, and the wonderfully plentiful acres provided in the Thumb by the Conservation Reserve
Program (CRP) and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) are a major factor in this regard.
What have also greatly helped are the volunteer and fundraising efforts provided by the Thumb Chapter of
Pheasants Forever (PF), a local group that works diligently with private landowners in creating and maintaining
constructive wild pheasant habitat. This is clearly a great asset to ongoing CRP and CREP because a crucial fact
to all this is that 97% of the Thumb’s wild pheasant’s range is found on private lands. Constructive (the CRP and
CREP guidelines are very constructive as well) pheasant habitat also enhances the environment for a wide variety
of wildlife species, from butterflies and songbirds to waterfowl, turkeys and deer, not mention aiding the state’s
I’ve long looked upon Michigan’s wild pheasant as being a very “political bird”, because since the numbers
plummeted in the 1960’s and 1970’s due primarily to fast changing farming techniques and a loss of critical habitat,
the “ups” of the wild bird numbers are clearly related to federal programs that allow farmlands to remain idle for
periods of time. I saw a distinct blossom in Thumb bird numbers with the onset of CRP in the 1980’s. It reached a
noticeably high number of birds in 1992, dropped some after that, but the numbers have remained stable, thanks
to ongoing CRP and CREP. This means the 2007 Farm Bill which is presently on hold, is critical for the future of
the wild pheasant. (It is actually a very good time to contact your U.S. Legislator and let your thoughts be known –
40 million CRP acres are hanging in the balance across the nation).
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 the first 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 1790. There is no record of this being a successful
transplanting effort 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 wild Chinese ring-necks were
shipped in and released in Oregon. The birds flourished and propagated, and the first hunting season was held in
that state only 8 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 occurred 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 began
making its major debut in southern Michigan, when the state conservation agency began pen-rearing and
releasing birds in 1917. This was so successful that some farmers began looking upon the wild ring-necks as
pests, and the first Michigan pheasant season was conducted in 1925.
The early 1940’s are the real boom-time for Michigan pheasants, with it ranking as the top pheasant hunting
state in the nation, and with the Thumb being the hotspot in the state. For reasons unknown, there was a major
crash in the state’s pheasant numbers in 1947. It would begin to rebound in the early 1950’s, and then another
crash would occur in the 1960’s.
I personally never gave up my annual pheasant hunting excursions after that crash, and having pursued local
pheasants since the late 1950’s, I’ve some firsthand insight into the more recent history of the Michigan pheasant.
One fact I observed is that hunting surplus roosters has no impact on the 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 (average lifespan of a wild pheasant is less than one year). Releasing pen-reared
birds into the wild doesn’t bolster wild numbers much either, as they don’t survive as well or as long as wild hen
reared birds. Many state wildlife agencies have discovered that releasing and adding pen-reared birds to an
established wild pheasant population is a waste of funding. The ultimate key is providing proper habitat, and even
with such available, there still are up and down periods that have yet to be explained.
The first pheasants released by the state in 1917 were predominately Chinese ring-neck, with a dash of
Mongolian blood in the mix. Escapees from game preserves, as well as undocumented private releases have
added to the Michigan pheasant gene pool. Ultimately it is a hybrid that has adapted to its environment.
The most recent introduction of genes to the Michigan pheasant gene pool was the “black-necked” pheasant
that came directly from the Sichuan Province of China and was introduced by the DNR in the late 1980’s and early
1990’s. This offered pure wild genetics that I personally appreciated, as such never hurts. 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”.
Wild pheasants clearly require proper grassland habitat, and thanks to CRP and CREP, such abounds in areas of
the Thumb. Hopefully it will continue.