It wasn’t always so.
In the early part of the 20th Century, Fish and Game—a much looser, less scientific entity then—went to some trouble to import an exotic species that is so common today that many people likely think it is native: the ring-necked pheasant, a native of Asia.
Pheasants have been in the U.S. since about 1773, though they didn’t really become common until the 1800s in the East. The birds with their extravagant tail feathers came West in 1881, but not under their own power. They were imported first into Oregon.
Idaho’s state game warden hatched a plan to hatch some pheasants in 1907, hoping to provide sport for hunters. There were likely a few pheasants in Idaho before that, perhaps moving in from Washington and Oregon. They may have also escaped or been set free from amateur breeding operations. A Lewiston hunting club imported some for the sport of its members. Farmers could buy pheasant eggs and read about how to raise pheasants in the Gem State Rural.
Other states had set up hatchery programs, so Idaho had some clues as to how to do it. Deputy State Game Warden B.T. Livingston set out on January 21 for Corvallis, Oregon to pick up 225 English and China pheasants. Forty pens had been set up on leased land on the G.A. Stevens farm just west of Boise. Each pen was 16 feet square and 6 ½ feet high. Wire netting kept the birds in while a few boards provided shelter from the sun and rain. To raise more chicks, pheasant eggs were gathered once they appeared, and placed under regular chickens to hatch.
To avoid unnecessary ruffling of feathers, the Oregon Shortline train carrying the cargo of exotic birds made a special stop at the Stevens farm to unload its cargo rather than offloading them at the depot and hauling them back by wagon.
Even with careful care the birds didn’t do very well that first year. The state hired a pheasant specialist to oversee the breeding operation. Additional hatcheries popped up across Southern Idaho in subsequent years to increase the release of the birds into the wild.
By 1910 pheasants were thriving and breeding rapidly. They were touted as a benefit to farmers because of the thousands of insects they eat. In 1911, “bird fancier” Roland Voddard, was travelling the state talking up pheasants to farmers. Several started raising and releasing them into their fields to go after grasshoppers, particularly. Voddard was quoted in the Idaho Statesman as saying, “The pheasants will form a mighty good advance army for the work in this state as they have elsewhere. They are not a crop-destroying bird and will not dig up the grain as will chickens if they are left in the fields.”
Well, that was one opinion. By 1918, the Farm Bureau had declared war on pheasants. Farmers in the Magic Valley had come to believe that the pest-eating function of pheasants was negligible, while their love of grain was a real problem. It was said that mother pheasants had a strategy of flying up through the stands of grain, knocking against the seeds with their wings, and scattering it to be consumed by their chicks.
That same year the Twin Falls Weekly News published a recipe to make a coal tar and linseed oil mix with which farmers could coat corn. This was said to make it unpalatable to pheasants and not affect its ability to germinate.
At the time, there was no hunting season on the birds. They were protected so that their population would increase. The Farm Bureau lobbied to get a season established to help control the pesky birds. Allowing hunters to shoot them had always been the plan, so hunting seasons for pheasants began.
Pheasants remain a popular game bird today. Fish and Game releases thousands of them into the wild every year. In 2020 they released 34,000 birds.