The ringed-neck pheasant that dominates upland game bird hunter’s thoughts and dreams this fall has a history that some may not know.
Wyoming has been raising pheasants since 1939, and much has changed along the way. It all began when Owen Nickerson Denny (1838-1900), an Oregon native and former United States consul general to Shanghai, China, shipped 60 Chinese ring-necked pheasants from China to Port Townsend, Washington, in 1881. The birds were finally released in Denny’s home state of Oregon after a long trip by truck over bumpy roads.
These birds did so well that many other western states took notice and decided to get involved with raising this beautiful and tasty bird that offered sportsmen hunting opportunity. Some areas in Wyoming had habitat and agricultural practices that were suitable for pheasants so, in 1937, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, through a cooperative effort with local Sheridan County sportsmen, started construction on a bird farm south of the little town of Big Horn. Construction was completed around 1939 and the first pheasants were hatched using the best resources available at that time.
The pheasants were hatched and brooded using large white sitting hens that were “borrowed” from the neighbors. These big birds would incubate around 30 pheasant eggs; nearly three times as many as a hen pheasant. When the chicks were hatched the chicken hens protected them from the cold May wind and weather as if they were their own. Special boxes were built to separate the hen from the small chicks. Slats in the box allowed the pheasant chicks access to food and water provided for them. When the chicks got cold, they walked back through the slat to the surrogate mother and she tucked them underneath her to keep them warm and safe.
The feed that was fed to the pheasants was grown in a garden and prepared daily. The days were long and the pay wasn’t that great, but dedicated men from the local area took pride in raising the best pheasants possible. Pheasants were stocked with the intent of creating wild populations of birds that would perhaps be self sustaining and provide opportunity for hunters. As the years went by there was a shift in agricultural production from grain and seed crops to growing more hay. Some farms and ranches were turned into subdivisions. Pheasant hunting was becoming more popular than ever, but finding a place to go became increasingly difficult. It became obvious that if pheasant hunting was going to continue at these increased levels in Wyoming, many birds were going to have to be raised and released.
In the early years, a couple thousand pheasants raised to adulthood was a great accomplishment. Now, with modern computer controlled equipment and the knowledge gained over nearly a century in the business of raising pheasants, the Sheridan Bird Farm and the Downer Bird Farm near Yoder raise and annually release over 30,000 pheasants onto publicly accessible lands for put and take hunting opportunity. Ringed-neck pheasants can be pursued in the fall each year on over 20 areas that require no permission to hunt. Hunters need only to follow upland game bird regulations and rules specific to each hunt area, along with purchasing the required licenses and Pheasant Management Stamp to enjoy the pursuit of pheasants in Wyoming.
Pheasant hunting continues to be an important gateway opportunity to initiate young hunters and others to sport hunting. Following a bird dog on fresh scent or the thrill of a rooster exploding from a patch of cattails is just the ticket to ignite a passion for bird hunting that can last a lifetime.
Darrell Meineke is the State Bird Farm supervisor.