Pheasants Forever

pheasant legsThe particular history of Ring-Necked pheasants in South Dakota starts not with birds elevated to the level of state mascot but with sporadic and sometimes unsuccessful introductions.  The first birds released were introduced near Sturgis (of motorcycle rally fame) from an Oregon population in 1881.  More pheasants, this time from Illinois were introduced in 1899 and 1903.  These early introductions ultimately failed but the people of South Dakota persevered in 1908 and 1909 introductions were successful and orange vested shot gun wielders everywhere rejoiced.[1]  Today pheasants are raised on farms every year in South Dakota farms to be sold to the state so that more pheasants can be shot than the land can support.  South Dakota hunters love shooting pheasants and they don’t want to be limited in their avarice for blood and feathers.

Ring-necked Pheasants are the official state bird of South Dakota and decorate everything from trucker hats sold in gas stations to a state quarter.  Along with the giant presidential busts of Mount Rushmore, pheasants seem to be one of the most important icons of the state.   Both Rushmore and Pheasants celebrate relative late comers to the area, white people and a Chinese bird; they’re both a part of the mythical re-written history of the mid-west.  Pheasants are part of a west that is said to have been won rather than lost or irrevocably damaged.

Riding in the passenger seat of a company truck driving home from a site where we’d been excavating a Triceratops skull near Summerville South Dakota, I watched the prairie and fields roll past my window.  I noticed groups of pheasants on the shoulder of the road by fences delineating fields and pastures, private and state and federal lands.  The birds are a riot of color but clustered together against the background of corn fields and grazing cows, the pheasants look at home there as anywhere.  I saw at least two small crowds of the birds huddled together by the road in the twilight of South Dakota autumn.  I wondered if they were hiding next to the road as a place where hunters were less likely to shoot them.  According to my copy of Birds of South Dakota, fence lines are important nest sites for pheasants.

The morning before, as we drove towards the dinosaur dig; I spied men in camouflage at the edges of the fields, holding bows, making their way to find their quarry.

Weeks later I stopped at a gas station to fill up my Jeep.  I noticed something sticking out of the cylindrical trash can between pumps.  The tail of a pheasant jutted from the trash can.  Inside was the body of the once beautiful bird had been thrown into a plastic white shopping bag splattered in blood.  Seeing the bird, I felt like I was witnessing the evidence of some horrible crime.  I’d seen plenty of taxidermy animals without feeling that way. Seeing an animal thrown carelessly into a plastic bag and then into a gas station trash can was violent in a way that lacked in any form of respect.  The animal treated that way seemed to be a denial that this thing had ever lived at all; that it had been more than some target made for the pleasure of a man with a gun.  The dead pheasant, so pointless raises one question in my mind: Why?  Why introduce an animal from a continent across the world from us just so it can be shot at every year?  Why breed them in cages and pens just to release them for slaughter every year and call it sport or fun?  Is our judgment of the value of life so small that it means nothing more than something fun to take away with the blast of a shot gun?  Why?

[1] Birds of South Dakota; Dan A. Tallman, David L. Swanson, Jeffrey S. Palmer


    1. Childish indeed. It’s funny how some people can’t see restraint, self control, etc. as a higher form of strength. I’m a vegetarian myself.


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