The ring-necked pheasant is probably the most readily recognizable bird occurring in North Dakota, and in many parts of the state, it is the most likely to be encountered at any season of the year.
It’s true that these birds are less common in the northeastern part of the state than elsewhere, but pheasants occur even in windswept Grand Forks County. They also show up fairly regularly on the annual Christmas Bird Count at Icelandic State Park, in the state’s far northeastern corner. Some local pheasants may be game farm escapees, a few of which survive to produce broods.
The pheasant story is a remarkable one. As recounted in Robert E. Stewart’s “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” until 1910 the state had no pheasants at all. Less than 50 years later, pheasants numbered in the millions in North Dakota – and those were the ones taken by hunters.
The pheasant is an introduced species in North America, and it kind of snuck into North Dakota on its own. Early efforts to stock pheasants in North Dakota didn’t turn out well, but by 1930, large numbers of the birds began moving into the state from neighboring South Dakota – a state so proud of its pheasants that the legislature declared it the state bird, one of only a few non-native birds honored in that way.
North Dakota game managers trapped pheasants and moved them to likely habitats throughout the state. In that way, an exotic species became commonplace in the state.
There’s an irony here. As pheasant numbers grew, the number of native grassland birds decreased, in some cases precipitously. Sage grouse, native to the southwestern counties of the state, are no longer present in huntable numbers; a last-ditch effort is under way to stabilize the nesting population. This involves bringing birds from other states, Wyoming in this case.
The sage grouse is hardly the only species experiencing declining populations. The western meadowlark, North Dakota’s state bird, is considered a “species of concern” by the Game and Fish Department. Unlike the pheasant, the meadowlark is a native bird.
The status of some other native grassland birds is poorly understood. Sprague’s pipit is one example. These are drab birds that occur mostly on hill tops that people don’t often visit. Birders have always counted pipits by listening for their distinctive flight song – a phenomenon first described by John James Audubon when he visited Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River in 1843.
The pipit is named for Isaac Sprague, a bird painter who had caught Audubon’s eye. The great artist invited Sprague to join him on his expedition up the Missouri River, then named this new species – uncommon and inconspicuous, as it was – for his protege. Sprague went on to become a celebrated bird illustrator in his own right.
The current status of Sprague’s pipit is hard to determine. Its thin whistle is drowned out by oil field traffic in much of North Dakota’s shortgrass prairie country, the pipit’s usual range.
Game managers also use calls to measure pheasant populations. The cock pheasant makes a loud and unmistakable noise. By counting the instances -- known as “crowing counts” -- biologists can make a good estimate of how many breeding birds are present in a given territory.
Here is the paradox in prairie bird management, of course. Pheasants get a good deal of attention while native grassland species get relatively little. Overall, native grassland species have declined by more than 50% in the last half century, according to research printed in the journal Science and reported in the New York Times.
Pheasants themselves are not to blame, of course. They haven’t displaced native species.
Rather, the survival of pheasants is due to the attention people pay to the birds while the decline of other grassland species is often overlooked. Not because the birds are uninteresting or not valuable, but because modern land use has accommodated pheasants and disadvantaged other birds.
Henry Hill Collins, author of a wildlife guide published in 1959 and widely used in the 1960s, referred to the “solicitous care” that humankind lavished on the pheasants.
Nongame species don’t get that kind of love.
Nongame birds have benefited from the attention paid to huntable species. Wildlife refuges acquired by state and federal governments – often using license fees paid by hunters – also protect other species, and on some refuges, management efforts are directed at saving species such as piping plovers, which often nest near shallow prairie wetlands.
Overall, however, grassland habitat is declining and so are grassland bird populations. These grassland species need some of that “solicitous care” we’ve shown for the ring-necked pheasant.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.