George Washington has been called “The Father of our Country.” He might also be called “The Father of our Pheasants.”
The nation’s first president is credited with being the first person to bring pheasants to the United States, according to information from the South Dakota Department of Game Fish & Parks contained in the South Dakota State Historical Society — Archives, located in the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre.
Washington had several pairs of English pheasants sent from England to his Mount Vernon estate during his first term as president.
The basis of pheasants in South Dakota and throughout the United States, though, is said to have come from 70 pheasants that Judge O. N. Denny, then U.S. Consul at Shanghai, shipped to his brother, John Denny, in Oregon in 1880. The pheasants were released in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1880, 1881 and 1883.
Redfield calls itself the “Pheasant Capital of the World.” It was in Spink County that the first successful stocking of pheasants and the first pheasant hunting season took place in South Dakota.
A. E. Cooper and E. L. Ebbert bought several pairs of pheasants from a Pennsylvania game farm in 1908 and introduced them in wooded sections of their farms south of Doland. Those pheasants fell victim to heavy snow that winter. Cooper and Ebbert’s efforts to release pheasants the next year met with success.
H. P. Packard, H. J. Schalke and H. A. Hagman, all of Redfield, bought pheasants and released them on Hagman’s farm north of Redfield in 1909. About that same year, A. C. Johnson released 25 pheasants on his ranch south of Frankfort. Inspired by the success of these releases, the Redfield Chamber of Commerce made the first large release of pheasants in the area.
In 1911, the South Dakota Department of Game and Fish released 48 pairs of pheasants near Redfield that were purchased with privately donated funds. That same year, the state bought 200 pairs of pheasants and issued them to farmers living along the James River in Spink and Beadle counties.
The headline in the Sept. 3, 1913, Daily Capital-Journal in Pierre read, “The Pheasants are Coming.” The article stated that State Game Warden H. S. Hedrick had been notified that 5,000 Chinese ring-necked pheasants were arriving from a game farm near Chicago. After being displayed at the state fair in Huron, the pheasants in “families” of one rooster to several hens were to be distributed throughout the state, “the places of location being determined by the showing for natural protection and care which will be assured the birds for the first few years.”
In 1919, the shots heard round South Dakota were fired when the first open season on pheasants took place on October 30 in Spink County. Game wardens estimated that 200 of the pheasant population of 100,000 made the transition from the landscape to the dinner table.
In 1943, state Rep. Paul Kretschmar of Eureka delivered a speech to the South Dakota Legislature in which he extolled the virtues of the pheasant. Other states had designated the meadowlark as their state bird, while others had chosen songbirds, he said.
“To reward a bird of fine table delicacy, sporting blood vigorous and hardy, found throughout the state, responsible for a substantial part of our state income, and one that has given us national recognition, it is my recommendation that the Ring Neck Pheasant be officially named as the bird of our state,” he said.
A bill designating the Chinese ring-neck pheasant as the state’s official state bird was passed by the Legislature in 1943. Thus, South Dakota became a state that extensively promotes the killing and eating of an official symbol.
Pheasant numbers have varied through the years, but that allure 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.
A magazine article by Don Eddy, published about 1948, told how railroad executive Lucien Sprague brought a special 11-car train from Minneapolis to Leola containing at least two carloads of millionaires from all points of the compass during the pheasant hunting season. At Huron, 36 out-of-state airplanes were parked for the pheasant hunting season opener.
In Aberdeen, the pheasant canteen operated from August 19, 1943, to March 31, 1946, as a project of the American Red Cross and the USO. Thousands of soldiers, sailors and marines who were traveling through Aberdeen toward training facilities or deployments were greeted with hospitality and pheasant sandwiches.
The 2012 pheasant hunting season was from October 20, 2012, through Jan. 6, 2013, �statewide. There were 68,337 resident and 93,419 nonresident licenses issued that allowed holders to hunt pheasants, according to information from GF&P. A projected total of 1.4 million pheasants were harvested. The economic impact of pheasant hunting was $172.5 million.
When the 2013 pheasant hunting season begins at noon on Saturday, Oct. 19, it continues an annual autumn holiday in South Dakota.
The opening weekend is filled with good food, good dogs and good tales of previous hunts. It’s the story of how enduring friendships are built upon common interests, and how the tradition of hunting still serves as an important rite of passage into adulthood. It’s passing down from one generation to the next the essential values of good sportsmanship: respect for nature and sharing abundance.
The immigrant bird has made good in a big way.
This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society.