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.
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.
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.