The Ring-necked Pheasant Introduction
The 20th century was the ‘Wild West’ of wildlife introductions on PEI. You can read more about the Island’s White-tailed Deer experiment and the Hungarian Partridge introduction elsewhere in this blog. Today, let’s explore the interesting and controversial history of Ring-necked Pheasant on PEI (Photo 1 by Donna Martin, used with permission).
The date of the first Pheasant introduction is generally taken to be 1917, though the first written report comes from 1925. In April of that year, William Jenkins of Vernon raised five Pheasants brought from Kelowna, British Columbia (where his son, Max, was Mayor) and released them on his property at Seal River. They faired well for several years, until a harsh winter nearly wiped them out.
In the early 1930s, Robert Jenkins of Mount Albion (William’s brother) and Robert Shaw of Brackley brought in more birds. By 1935, at least 30 Pheasants were regularly frequenting the woods and fields around Shaw’s Hotel in Brackley, and RCMP responded to complaints of people shooting them (Pheasants had been protected under the Game Act since 1928).
Despite the releases – and RCMP protection – PEI’s Pheasant introduction didn’t grow legs until the Province got involved in 1937. In April of that year the Department of Agriculture offered to buy wild Hungarian Partridge from Islanders (at a cost of $1 per bird – the equivalent of about $28 today – Photo 2) to trade with Ontario for an equal number of Pheasants. In the end, 60 Huns were traded for 60 Pheasants, released in November 1937. The Department imported and released additional Pheasants from Ontario and New Brunswick in 1938.
The Game Act was amended to enable Pheasant hunting in 1938, but the first season didn’t open until 1945 (Photo 3). In the intervening years, sportsmen (most notably, Dr. Gus MacKenzie and Frank ‘Duck’ Acorn) brought in more birds at their own expense.
Once the season opened in 1945, things really took off. Island Pheasants Unlimited was formed with an aim to continue stocking game birds across PEI. By December 1945, they had raised $190 from private donors (equal to more than $4,300 today). But that was just a drop in the bucket toward their goal of buying 1,000 Pheasants from Wisconsin at a cost of $4 per bird (a total cost of more than $91,000 today). They did have some financial support from the Province for Pheasant importation, but not enough to bridge that chasm.
To help defray the costs, Pheasants Unlimited suggested that all hunters – including farmers – pay a fee of $1.50 to $2 per year (roughly $40 today). Suffice to say this idea was not warmly embraced! It made it to the floor of the PEI Legislature in March 1946 but was quickly withdrawn by politicians. Despite having their fee proposal quashed, Pheasants Unlimited purchased 600 birds at a cost of $2,883 (more than $60,000 today) thanks to a combination of private donors and Government funding (Photo 4). That was the last of the Pheasant releases for a decade.
By the early 1950s, Pheasants were abundant on PEI – so much so that some sportsmen began to be concerned about impacts on Ruffed Grouse, Huns, and Ducks. There were reports (always second- or third-hand) of Pheasants destroying nests of waterfowl and upland game birds, and even killing Snowshoe Hare. In the 1951 season, it was estimated that hunters bagged 15,000 Pheasants. Despite this success, there were concerns when numbers seemed to drop after 1954. Talk of releasing birds arose again.
While the releases of the 1930s and 40s were widely supported, those of the 1950s were highly controversial. Earlier releases were mostly live birds from Wisconsin, but this new round was primarily pen-raised birds hatched locally: some at Robert’s Hatchery in Tryon, others from Pheasant eggs distributed to local farmers and hatched under domestic hens.
These semi-domestic, pen-raised birds didn’t fare nearly as well as their predecessors. Of 4,000 young Pheasants released in 1956 (Photo 5), only 37 bands were returned by hunters (it was rumored some of those were taken from road-killed birds to help boost the numbers). Despite the release of untold thousands of birds between 1956 and 1959, Pheasant numbers continued to decline. The hunting season was closed in 1963. Legendary game warden and sportsman Spurgeon Jenkins remarked that Pheasants would have recovered nicely if “left to their own devices and bloodlines and not watered down by a bunch of anemic misfits”.
Occasional Pheasant introductions continued from the 1960s through the 2000s, including attempts at Korean Ring-necked Pheasants and Japanese Green Pheasants in the 1970s (both unsuccessful). Despite substantial public and private funding and countless volunteer hours, Pheasants remain only in low numbers scattered throughout the Island, including around the Earnscliffe Pheasant Preserve. But they – and their history – are still part of PEI untamed!