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Monthly History Article

October 2013 - History of Pheasants in South Dakota

The Pheasant Hunting Season Opener: An Annual Autumn Holiday in South Dakota

The pheasant hunting season in South Dakota 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 second century of pheasant hunting in South Dakota begins in October, continuing an annual autumn holiday in the state. The traditional pheasant hunting season begins Saturday, Oct. 19, and continues until Jan. 5, 2020.

The basis of Chinese-ring-necked pheasants in South Dakota and throughout the United States comes from pheasants that Owen Nickerson Denny, then U.S. Consul General in Shanghai, shipped to Port Townsend, Wash., in 1881, according to Pheasants Forever. He had been introduced to this beautiful, tasty bird in China and hoped to establish a population in his home state of Oregon. Most of the pheasants died as they were transported to Portland, Ore. Denny sent more ring-necked pheasants to Portland in 1882. His brother, John, released the pheasants in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and this time the introduction was successful.

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, Redfield sportsmen 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 throughout the state.

About 1,700 Chinese ring-necked pheasants purchased by the state game commission were displayed at the South Dakota State Fair in Huron in September 1913.

“This will allow thousands of residents of the state to familiarize themselves with the general appearance of the birds, and not put a strange specimen before some wondering hunter who will want to shoot it to see just what kind of bird he has run across,” stated newspaper articles. The pheasants were distributed to counties throughout South Dakota after the fair.

In 1919, the shots heard round South Dakota were fired when the first open season on pheasants took place on Oct. 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 meadow lark as their state bird, while others had chosen song birds, 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 Aug. 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.

For the 2018 pheasant hunting season in South Dakota, 53,577 resident and 69,018 nonresident licenses were issued that allowed holders to hunt pheasants, according to information from the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. An estimated 950,883 pheasants were harvested. The economic impact of pheasant hunting was $218.1 million.

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. Find us on the web at www.sdhsf.org. Contact us at info@sdhsf.org to submit a story idea.