Exploring Iowa’s Pheasant Heritage

By Troy Hoepker

I venture to guess that Iowa residents of Black Hawk, Grundy, Butler and Bremer counties in 1901 and 1902 had to wonder, “What is this mysterious bird that seemingly appeared on the Iowa prairie almost overnight?” It’s large chicken-like size, beautiful plumage and distinct white stripe encircling the male’s neck made it distinguishable as a definite newcomer to the area. But why, all of a sudden, were there hundreds of them and where did they come from?

The sudden population boom in the area was caused by Iowa’s first successful pheasant planting, one that was made entirely by accident! William Benton, an Englishman that had settled in Cedar Falls propagated pheasants on a game farm operation with the idea of selling his stock. His pens contained thousands of pheasants until one unfortunate day, when a good old fashioned Iowa thunderstorm brought severe winds that wrecked his pens, turning thousands of his prized birds loose and scattering them across the countryside. Word around the campfire however included the rumor that a few locals may have assisted in seeing those birds set off on their own just to hunt them? Benton’s birds spread west and north but failed to really establish themselves south and east. Those early birds that survived constituted the foundation stock that actually thrived for future generations. We will never know, but maybe there are Iowa pheasants that can still be genetically traced back to Benton’s birds?

For the most part however, our Iowa birds came from years and years of stocking and planting in many locations to establish wild populations across the state. Ring-necked pheasants are not indigenous to Iowa nor are they native to America. Although unproven, it’s thought that near the turn of the century William Benton’s pheasants were likely purchased either from Tacoma, Washington from an importer or from Oregon, where the first successful introduction in America of the ring-necked pheasant occurred in the Willamette Valley in 1881. Birds were imported from China by European-Americans who longed to once again hunt the pheasant that they were accustomed to hunting in the fields of Europe. By 1892, Oregon held the inaugural hunting season in America largely due to Owen Denny, the first man to import the pheasant across the Pacific Ocean with intent of establishing a hunting population. Oregon’s successful introduction of the game bird would serve as an example for other states to follow in the decades to come.

Documented plantings of birds followed Benton’s accidental release in Iowa. An unsuccessful planting attempt was made in Keokuk County in 1904, but successful plantings were made in Kossuth County in 1907 and also O’Brien in 1908. Other attempts, some documented and some not, were made during the time period as well. All of these early attempts to populate Iowa with pheasants were made privately. It is not known exactly when the state began plantings originally as records only go back to 1921, but it is certain that the state made plantings by 1913 annually. Our earliest records come from the first mentioning of pheasants in the 19th Biennial Report of the State Fish and Game Warden (prior to the Iowa DNR), which covered the period between July 1, 1908 and June 30, 1910. The State Warden, Mr. George A. Lincoln, mentioned in his report that it was concluded through correspondence with other states regarding the endeavor of introducing game birds, that the distribution of eggs among farmers was the most successful way to introduce the ring-necked pheasant. Mr. Lincoln then purchased and distributed 6,265 eggs to 178 different applicants in 82 counties across the state with instructions for hatching, rearing and liberating for the fall of 1910. The next year saw the purchase of 4,738 pheasants from breeders and an additional 6,000 eggs for distribution. The earliest existence of any records show that Butler County received 500 birds in 1913 and 400 in 1915, a larger proportion than was dealt out anywhere else.

The first state-ran game farm was established in April of 1913, on a 27-acre tract at the State Fair Grounds in Des Moines. Two years later the operation was moved to a 150-acre tract state farm near Clive in Polk County. Storm Lake likely had a game farm raising birds by 1913 as well. Northwest Iowa counties were likely receiving standardized bird plantings of 200-800 birds between 1915 and 1918. Birds were commonly released on leased state grounds. Almost all of the plantings in Northern Iowa were a success from the beginning. Southern Iowa plantings struggled to gain a foothold. Winnebago, the beneficiary of a 2,500 bird stocking, and surrounding counties near the Minnesota line established an abundance of pheasants by 1916 and further south Humboldt, Hardin and Hamilton Counties would be considered abundant in the following years up until 1925. This area would be considered Iowa’s core pheasant range and Iowa’s first pheasant hunting season was held October 20-22, 1925 in 13 counties. Those counties were Kossuth, Humboldt, Winnebago, Hancock, Wright, Cerro Gordo, Franklin, Mitchell, Floyd, Butler, Grundy, Black Hawk and Bremer. The season opened one-half hour before sunrise and ended at noon each day with a bag limit of three cock birds.

During the same time period South Dakota was working hard to establish pheasant populations as well. In the Sioux City region and north some annual drift was likely across the state line helping Northwest Iowa populations grow throughout time. South Dakota had their first hunting season six years prior to Iowa on October 30, 1919, a one-day event that was held only in Spink County. Near 200 birds were harvested by a few hundred hunters on that day. By the 15th season of 1933, over 63,000 South Dakota hunters bagged an astonishing two-million birds. So it’s easy to see that some spillover throughout the years was no doubt witnessed in Iowa.

In those early times, little was known about the proper habitat, climate, moisture and land use needed for pheasant stockings to be successful. Iowa’s eventual phenomenal success, to be realized decades later, was mostly a result of trial and error in those early years. Continuing education through failures throughout the period earned biologists the valuable insight needed to be able to establish pheasant populations in virtually every part of the state. Case in point was the mystery of why pheasants could not seem to survive and establish on their own in southern counties of the state during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Most of the releases of pen-raised or flight trapped birds took place in timbered areas during that time, a practice we now know to be ill advised. By 1925, pheasants had became so abundant in the north that birds were being trapped and either relocated south or used for their eggs to distribute to the southern part of Iowa. This work originated in Winnebago and Butler Counties when 1925 records show 60,000 eggs gathered and 7,000 birds trapped. From 1927 to 1930 over 10,000 birds and 30,000 eggs were distributed, mostly to southern Iowa. Most of those distributed birds were planted in small plantings all over. In 1931 trapping was done by contract. The state paid private trappers $1.00 each for live birds delivered to the local warden who in turn shipped them to Clive. Over 11,000 birds were delivered. By the 1930’s the state began to shift into mass plantings instead of scattered plantings hoping to establish populations in certain areas thereby letting that population expand in a farther and farther radius in coming years. The state also increased their emphasis on releasing these birds in suitable habitat for them to be successful instead of the indiscriminate locations of the past. They focused first on restoring food and cover conditions. For the first time the state was on the right path to establishing the popular game bird in Southern Iowa.

Todd Bogenschutz, our current Upland Wildlife Research Biologist said it best: “Pheasant distribution in the USA is driven by climate and habitat. Of course climate determines to a degree what your habitat is, arid regions have little grassland, wet regions are mostly timbered. Intermediate regions for rainfall favor grasslands and is where the best pheasant populations are found.”

What Todd refers to so well is that during the early years of Iowa’s attempts to establish pheasants in the southern part of the state, they failed to realize these important factors. Bogenschutz continued, “The southern third of Iowa is climatically on the fringe of pheasant distribution for nesting season rainfall, data that Aldo Leopold didn’t have in his day. It explains why pheasants did so well in Northern Iowa and were a struggle to establish in Southern Iowa.”

Although bird populations in the southern third of the state have never been as high as the northern part of the state, eventually solid bird numbers were established in parts of the south. In 1955, a new policy of trap and transfer of wild birds was started in southern Iowa. Increasing populations in Union and Adair counties were trapped (1375 birds) and distributed to other southern counties. Also new wild birds were brought to the state game farm and then redistributed to unoccupied range in Southeastern Iowa. Through dedicated efforts of stocking and study, pheasants began to sustain themselves from generation to generation in suitable range.

The first hunting seasons in Iowa were fragile. From 1927 to 1933 a pheasant season could only be set for those counties from which the State Game Warden received a petition signed by at least 150 farmers or landowners in that county who had suffered crop damage by pheasants. The State Legislature often set the season dates and bag limits. The number of counties increased from the originally 13 counties in 1925 to 53 by 1941. In five of those seasons hens were legally targeted believe it or not. Three birds of any sex could be taken in 1929, 1930 and 1931. The bag limits for 1932 and 1935 were set at two cocks and one hen. Extremely short seasons conflicted with the belief that taking some hens would reduce populations in counties where pheasants were considered abundant. There were no pheasant hunting seasons in Iowa during 1928, 1936 and 1937. The reason for 1928 remains a mystery but severe winters were the reason behind 1936-37 season’s closure. Iowa’s pheasant seasons had never lasted more than seven days until 1942 when population increases allowed a 21-day season in 39 of the 59 counties allowed a season. There was even an eight-day spring season for 11 counties in March of 1943 in which a hunter could bag five birds daily and two of them could be hens. It was the only time Iowa’s history when spring hunting was allowed. In 1944, Iowa experimented with allowing a daily bag limit of six roosters during their 42-day season. The next three years brought heavy spring rains and Iowa reduced the bag limit from six down to five in 1944, and then down to three in 1946, and two roosters per day in 1947 through 1949. 1976 was the first year the entire state was opened up for pheasant hunting.

A fall roadside count has been used to census Iowa’s pheasant population since 1936. The roadside count survey has always practiced the tradition of having participants drive the same route at the same time of morning counting the number of birds they saw. Over the years the time of year has changed from late September to mid October and eventually to August. Another traditional source of pheasant population for biologists was to send out questionnaires to hunters after their season was over. These helpful surveys helped provide a snapshot of bird populations and bird harvest over the years not only statewide but also in different regions of the state. For decades thousands of helpful volunteers have helped to make pheasant hunting a success in Iowa.

Since 1960 only two other states besides South Dakota or Iowa have ranked number one in the country in pheasant harvest in a given year. Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s Iowa regularly led the nation in pheasant harvest numbers. They held the crown in the late 1980’s up until about 1990 too until South Dakota began it’s dominance ever since. A general decline in pheasant numbers correlates strongly with the changes in agricultural practices in this state of the last 40 years.

There was a time in this state when opening day was considered a sacred holiday! Every year near the end of October sleepy little towns all over Iowa came alive with the hustle and bustle created by the armies of orange that invaded the nearby farm fields. It was an annual social event for farm families to greet their returning hunters like members of the family. In many cases they were members of the family coming back from far away to relive their own memories of chasing ring-necks across the countryside. Children longed for the day when they too could walk alongside their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and friends to participate in the same time honored tradition that their family had taken part in for generations. New friendships grew, lies were told, hunts were exaggerated and bonds between hunters were strengthened all behind the beloved dogs that poured their hearts and souls into finding birds for their masters.

To see first-hand the cackling rise and explosion of wings followed by that sword-like tail feather clearing the very top tufts of grass bound skyward in flight just as we take aim is something we are truly blessed to witness here in Iowa! Before 2025 comes, we should make an effort of rededicating ourselves and our children to getting back into the wonderful tradition that so many of us remember, because in just a few short years we will celebrate our own “Pheasantennial” of 100 years of pheasant hunting in Iowa!