Welcome invader


A ring-necked pheasant rooster struts his stuff at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson/Amy Bragg photo

For almost 90 years, people have been trying to introduce ring-necked pheasants to Alaska without luck, and yet the species never really disappears.

Credit, or blame, the human yearning for some little piece of home even if the remnant of home is something itself transplanted from far away. Overlook the Chinese origin of the ringneck because nothing stirs fond memories of hunters from the lower 48 more than the sighting of a brightly colored, long-tailed rooster.

Hunters first introduced the birds to Alaska in 1930, according to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game history. 

Ever since, pheasants have been coming and going, and going and coming as an invasive species not quite able to successfully invade. Sometimes they have appeared to establish breeding populations only to again disappear.

The problems they face in the north are twofold – predators and food shortages.

The beautiful cock Amy Bragg caught with her camera this year at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson might by now already have fallen victim to the former. Eagle-filled Alaska is not a good place for a brightly colored dandy to strut his stuff.

But the bigger problem is more the lack of a proper ecological niche.

An omnivore that can grow fat on a summer diet of energy-dense grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, crickets, other insects and earthworms, and survive on fruits, leaves and buds when necessary, pheasants really do best in places where they have access to nuts and seeds, primarily fallen grain.

Brought to Oregon from Shanghai in the 1880s, the birds established a foothold in the Willamette Valley and started working east with the help of a lot of people who liked the idea of wild chickens.

 U.S. consul general Owen Denny, America’s highest-ranking diplomat in Asia, in the late 1800s “developed a keen interest in ring-necked pheasants as wild game birds,” writes Kenn Kaufman at Audubon. ” Since they thrived in open country near Shanghai, he thought they would do well in the climate of his home state of Oregon, and he arranged to send several shipments home.

“By the 1930s, pheasants were firmly established in most of their current range: abundant on the northern Great Plains, widespread in the interior of the West, and common across the Midwest through much of the Atlantic Coast.

The introduced species became so popular that South Dakota declared the ringneck its official state bird in 1943, 45 years after its introduction in 1898. “Invasive species” was not then a nasty phrase.

Non-invasive species

Attitudes have changed enough since that Kaufman felt it necessary to push back against the modern view when writing his column for Audubon.

“Some purists in the birding community are biased against it for that reason—especially those who keep life lists under “NIB” (no introduced birds) standards,” he wrote. “Regardless of what the birdwatchers say, the pheasant is welcome here.

“And it should be. Most of us are descended from immigrants, just as the pheasants are, and the pheasants’ ancestry goes back for many more generations than most of us can claim.”

Aw yes, the immigrant connection….

Alaska’s most successful effort to introduce ringnecks, albeit it a failure in the end, has its own immigrant routes. They trace back to the U.S. government’s Depression Era effort to stock the then territory with more people.

In 1935, as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” 202 Midwest families  were shipped north to start the Matanuska Colony in the river valley of the same name about 35 miles north of Anchorage – now the state’s largest city, then a wide spot of less than 2,300 people along the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks.

Immigrants from a corner of the nation where the pheasant was sometimes viewed as the poor man’s, wild, chicken dinner, it wasn’t long before they had pheasants running around “The Valley” as Alaskans now call the booming bedroom community north of Anchorage.

“Following one (stocking) effort in 1938, transplanted ringnecks increased for several successive favorable years and were still being seen in the mid-1950s,” Thomas Paul wrote in the state’s history of “Game Transplants in Alaska.” “After one or two severe winters, few pheasants could be located in the valley and interest in stocking them diminished.”

Paul concluded “the inability of pheasants to survive in Alaska has been clearly demonstrated by transplants in the Matanuska Valley,” but the pheasants seemed to be hanging on when the area was being actively farmed.

Maybe if global warming changes the climate enough to make it possible to grow corn in the fields of the state’s long unsuccessful Point McKenzie agriculture project they will finally take hold.  Alaska wildlife transplant projects have worked well where habitat is even marginally suitable.

Sitka blacktail released on Kodiak Island between 1924 and 1934 are probably the state’s biggest success story.

“….The original 25 Sitka black-tailed deer have multiplied into tens of thousands and thrived on the islands, providing a huntable population for over 50 years,” Paul wrote.

He also observed that “wildlife management policies surrounding transplant of big game animals have changed dramatically over the years.” The state in 1995 developed a transplant policy that “prohibits the introduction of non-indigenous species to Alaska.”

That hasn’t stopped Alaskans from trying on their own, however. A resident of Cooper Landing on the Kenai Peninsula was in 2008 convicted on charges of illegally releasing wild turkeys, though he claimed they just got out of their pens.

Whether the JBER pheasant is a simple, colorful escapee from someone’s family chicken coup or the latest effort at starting a new Alaska wildlife population is unknown.











19 replies »

  1. With the conversion of spruce/birch forests to grasslands on the Kenai over the last 20 years pheasants are in a much better situation than they were in the 1940s. Anyone think it would be a good idea for ADF&G to translocate sharp-tailed grouse from the interior to the western Kenai? It should be heaven for them…… Maybe elk too.

  2. About five years ago or so someone (or more) in Homer raised these birds in quantity. they were everywhere. I remember once a car hitting one and driving off with two behind thinking “Oh boy” but the lad ahead of me braked hard and snatched my dinner ahead of me! These imports didn’t take, though I can’t imagine a better inviron.

    For sixteen years I rented a cabin on the hill that belong to Jimmy Steele, the bird man of Homer. He raised quail, I think, and I used his old holdings for chickens. The quail comes from Mary Jane Hillstrand who owned the land then, who I paid the outrageous sum of $15 every month (until she raised it to $25 because of them damn taxes), now passed on to Mo.

  3. My neighbor outside Soldotna reported seeing a pheasant a couple of days ago. I thought he was nuts. Guess it’s me that was out to lunch.

  4. About 7-8 years ago, I saw a pair near my house at the end of Klatt Road. They scampered off into the woods and I’ve never seen them since.

  5. I remember seeing a few on the edge of the back fields perhaps 8-10 yrs ago(Wasilla area),late summer.
    Old Dawg loved the action, but I was told that they wouldn’t make it thru the winter,couldnt forage for themselves.
    It seems that was true

  6. We need to import some kind of bird that has a voracious appetite for spruce bark beeles. Maybe the Magellantic Woodpecker from Patagonia?

    • Kevin Delaney. If ADFG starts to stock lakes with walleyes, they’re called stocked lakes. If you and I try to do it, the walleyes are “invasive”. Funny how that works.

  7. If only no one introduced the dastardly Marxist Leninist invasive ideal to the racist Democrat Party and their armed militia known then as the KKK; America would be a far better place for all today!

    • Burt, you left off BLM, Black Panthers, The Communist Party USA, and ANTIFA. I am sure I missed some. Haha

  8. Nothing more fun than invasive species eradication in SoDak.

    As to JBER, my guess is someone with rank was engaging in a released pheasant shooting/dog training exercise.

    • There are no good ecosystem nor bad ecosystems. They are just ecosystems. The amount of money spent eradicating “invasives” across the US is astounding. It seldom works. When an invasive shows up, you have to learn to love it. Pheasants, German brown trout, northern pike, are but a few species that people have learned to love. Now if someone could figure out how to eat zebra mussels….

      • At a max length of 2″ yeah, pretty hard to consume them though edible. Pretty much the max size one can find blue mussels in Kachemak Bay these days compliments of the otter population. I really hope that those large salt water rats can be reclassified. They are not in the least, here anyway, endangered.

    • As founding anchor for ADF&G’s Wildlife Info Center, I often fielded calls about various galinacious game birds on the loose. One that often popped up was claims of a group of wild turkeys said to be successfully overwintering somewhere in the Valley. Erak is right about where most of these birds come from. Breeders may raise and sell them to gun-dog trainers who upon release in the field ahead of their dogs, are supposed to “eradicate” the invaders the same day. However, some escape.

      Bob white and ringneck vocalizations used to emanate from the pens of one of my neighbors engaged in this enterprise. One late fall my sled dogs alerted me to an escapee. Not long out of the pen, he was still nice and fat. By a month or so after our first snows, another of that group of escapees was thin as a rail.

      I grew up not far from the first ringneck release area. Having been hunted longer than any other “China pheasant” population in the U.S., they had learned that to survive, they’d better not flush, but stay down and run . Natural selection in evidence–what accomplished runners they were.

  9. The lower 48 and later AK, was settled and homesteaded by immigrants from all over the world, with a heavy emphasis from UK, Europe, Middle East & Africa. We have brought many invasive species with us. Some will say, we are the ultimate warrior invasive species. I will not argue that point. As I age, I grow more tolerant to my surroundings. What a mess we have left!

    • James,
      I agree that “man” starts to look like the most destructive invasive species in the Arctic.
      Since the 1600’s, Europeans have been taking from Arctic waters and the collapse of the Cod fishery around New Foundland in the early 90’s and the decimated Bowhead Whale species are just two examples of what modern “man” has done to the North.
      I just watched a movie on Amazon called “Ice Race” and the conflicts are far from over as Russia flexes its muscles in the Arctic.
      All we need is one “deep water horizon” spill from an oil well and our fisheries are toast.
      Ice Race also showed how the Russians have left a ton of radioactive waste on their Siberian coast after the last Cold War…
      I guess you are correct:
      “What a mess we have left!”

      • Hmm, so an oil spill from natural oil out of the ground back onto the ground is a “mess” that would ruin “our” fisheries”? I grow more lost by the day.
        “All we need is one “deep water horizon” spill from an oil well and our fisheries are toast.”

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