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The Denny Pheasant

The Denny Pheasant

By Edgar Castillo


Otago was name of the ship that set sail in January1881. It was commanded by Captain Royal, and he knew nothing of how its cargo in the hull would make history. The ship arrived almost one-hundred forty years ago on March 13, 1881 in Port Townsend, Washington. The cargo consisted of both flora and fauna.

16 trees of Pang Tao or flat peach, and a significant portion of bamboos accompanied a small number of Mongolian sand grouse and chefoo partridges. However, the shipment that was of importance would be the 60 or so Chinese ring-necked pheasants from Shanghai, China.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

These Eastern birds had been brought to America in hopes of establishing a population in Oregon. Almost all the pheasants survived the ocean journey. While in the dark vessel they were quiet and un-frightened. Yet, most of the pheasants succumbed as they were transported from the Olympic Peninsula to Portland. All, the rattling and splashing from traveling on the train and boats, scared the bird which caused them to beat and bruise themselves. Most of the pheasants perished. Those that did not were released on the lower Columbia River.

There are varying accounts as to whether the foreign birds survived at all, let alone establish a breeding population of pheasants. However, an 1888 U.S. Agriculture Department report says otherwise. It is said that the pheasants released in 1881 “wintered well and have been increasing ever since. They are now common”. This information would not be known for some time and more attempts would follow. The grouse and partridge that accompanied the pheasants did not survive.

Owen Nickerson Denny 1838-1900 Photo from Find a Grave

The mastermind behind bringing ring-neck pheasants to Oregon was that of Owen Nickerson Denny (1838-1900). Denny studied law and later became a prosecutor then a judge in Oregon. In 1868 he was appointed as internal revenue collector for the state or Oregon and Alaska. In 1870 Denny refused a post to Amoy, China. Ten years later, Denny found himself named the United States consul general in Shanghai, China.

Chinese Pheasants

While in China, Denny became fascinated with the colorful avians he had encountered. He thought the exotic birds would do well in his home state of Oregon. The ring-necked male pheasant, a large dramatically multi-colored wild bird sports a long tail. Shimmering with gold and green plumage on the backside, an iridescent dark-green neck above a winter white collar, and red eye wattles. The female hen pheasants are much more subdued with their browns and black colorations. They also have the distinctive pointed tail but much shorter. Pheasants were found frequently around farms and fields around Shanghai.

Denny found pheasants appealing to the palette. He wrote to a friend, “These birds are delicious eating and very game and will furnish fine sport.” At the suggestion of his wife, Gertrude (1837-1933), he decided to ship a flock of 60 pheasants across the Pacific in 1881. Chinese farmers would catch pheasants by using nets and then take them to the market alive to sell. The birds were often thin. Denny would purchase them by the dozen and feed them until they were fat and fit for the table. Denny made entries into his journal about how extraordinarily handsome the pheasants were. While admiring the birds he thought about how he would very much enjoy turning the entire lot of his pheasants “adrift” in Oregon. Its probably safe to say that is when Denny made his decision to ship the lot to his home state.

Pheasants Spread Across the Pacific Northwest

As mentioned, it was unclear whether the pheasants fared well and survived the initial 1881 release. One year later 29 pheasants landed safely in Portland for a second attempt to introduce pheasants into Oregon. The birds were kept penned up until it was sure that they were well acclimated and did not perish upon immediate release. The over two dozen pheasants were released near Denny’s brother home in Linn County. The birds took to the land like “ducks to water”.

Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

A subsequent release in 1884 was successful in introducing ring-neck pheasants into Oregon’s Willamette Valley and on Protection Island in Jefferson County near Port Townsend. Somehow the pheasants crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca and colonized Vancouver Island. The pheasants adapted well, and the Chinese game birds proved to be prolific. Within a year, the pheasants spread to surrounding counties.

The birds eventually became so common that they seemed more like native birds. The transplanted birds thrived in their new habitat and soon populations were in the tens of thousands. Denny used his political connections and influence to garner the Oregon state legislature to pass a bill protecting the pheasants for 10 years. The hunting of pheasants was banned so that their population could increase, and the birds could become established in the region. The pheasants thrived and when the first pheasant season opened in Oregon in 1892, bird hunters reportedly bagged an estimated 50,000 birds on the first day! The birds soon spread over into the states of Washington, Idaho, and California.

Widespread Distribution

Many of the descendants of the birds Denny shipped to Oregon, soon spread and were introduced successfully across the United States. There are almost twenty states now that have sizeable well-established pheasant populations. South Dakota proclaiming to be the pheasant capital of the world, made the ring-neck pheasant its state bird. The ring-neck pheasant found its way here to Kansas in 1906. The Chinese transplant flourished and adapted well throughout the state, finding suitable habitat in its grain crops. Kansas first pheasant season opened in late 1917 and the rest is history.

In appreciation for Denny’s effort in introducing such a valuable fowl, the Oregon State Legislature empowered the game commission to pay a pension of $50 a month to Mrs. Denny after the death of her husband. Oregonians for a time tried to have the pheasants that were introduced by Denny referred to as “Denny Pheasants”. The name honoring the Denny’s did not prevail and never came into common use, however both Denny and his wife, Gertrude are still recognized for their role and persistence in the introduction of the most popular game bird in America, the ring-neck pheasant. The iconic bird is now a common sight for hunters during those fall and winter hunting seasons.

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