“That Most Wonderful Bird”: The Story of Gratiot County’s Ring-neck Pheasant

Francis Norris of Ithaca and Roy LaLonde of Alma show off a good morning of pheasant hunting in Gratiot County in October 1957. Pheasant hunting in Gratiot in the 1950s had reached its high point.

Pheasant hunting became an important part of Gratiot County’s economy during the season. Area businesses and restaurants knew that pheasant hunters needed supplies and a good meal during a day of hunting in Gratiot County. Above, Glen’s Sporting Goods sponsored this advertisement in the October 11, 1962 issue of the St. Louis Leader Press – the eve of pheasant season that year.

Above: A sad, but accurate scene that spread across parts of Michigan in the 1960s. Changes in farm practices spelled doom for the pheasant population as fencerows, stubble fields, woodlots, and other cover disappeared as farmers turned these areas into farmland. The picture was taken in 1966 in the Thumb area, the heart of pheasant hunting. Similar changes also happened in Gratiot County.

Note: The following post is an extended version of a piece that recently appeared in the October 27, 2022 issue of the Gratiot County Herald.

In 1920,  Elder Rushby wrote a letter to the Gratiot County Herald entitled “Who Killed the Last Deer in Gratiot?” Rushby wanted to know when the last bear, wolf, and passenger pigeon had been seen or killed by Gratiot County residents. His letter confirmed a belief that much of Gratiot County’s wildlife had been decimated by the start of the early twentieth century. It also suggested another question, what could residents now hunt in Gratiot County?

By the time of the Rushby letter, a new and vital chapter in Gratiot County’s hunting history began. In this case, it would be the tale of the Ring-neck pheasant.

Pheasants to America, Gratiot County

Pheasants arrived in North America long before they did in mid-Michigan. Both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin’s families attempted to raise English pheasants on the Eastern Seaboard. The pheasant first came to the West Coast when Consul Owen Denny imported fifteen birds from Shanghai, China, in 1881. He placed them in Portland, Oregon, and a year later, another thirty pheasants arrived under his direction. They ended up in the Willamette Valley. While the flocks initially took off, both were soon prey to hunters and were decimated.

However, an interest in importing pheasants to Gratiot County started. In May 1898, Doctor Scott and George Reed of Ithaca made the news when they traveled to Alma to pick up the first recorded arrival of pheasant eggs. It is unclear what happened afterward, but by 1905 the pheasant was officially a protected bird in the county and deemed “Game owned by the State.” During 1917-1918, the State offered to send pheasant eggs to Gratiot County. Only thirty eggs arrived, a small amount compared to other counties which accepted the challenge of hatching and raising pheasants. In 1920, thirteen pheasants appeared at Alverson and Son’s Store in Ithaca as an exhibit to increase interest to try again and bring pheasants to the county.

As the imports of pheasant types started, four types emerged at the Mason State Game Farm: Mongolian, English Black Neck, Japanese Pheasant, and Eastern Chinese Ringneck. These four breeds eventually merged into what Gratiot County hunters knew as the Ring-neck pheasant.

Growing the Pheasant Population, the 1920s-1930s

As the pheasant came under protection in the 1920s, those breeding and raising pheasants raised the theory of the ten-year cycle. During this period, the bird would naturally rise and decline over ten years if the pheasants reproduced and adapted to mid-Michigan’s habitat. Because of this, hunting in the county was not allowed until 1928, and early on October 28, 1928, the first pheasant season opened in Gratiot County.

While hunting was allowed, groups and methods tried to help increase the pheasant population. In 1931, the Gratiot County Conservation League tried to raise pheasants. Unfortunately, the hatch only produced one-half of the eggs that the League received. Officials attempted other ways to help protect the pheasants during the hay harvest. In June 1939, the State promoted the idea of farmers using flushing bars while in the fields. The bar extended in front and had bells or chains dangling in front of the tractor. As the bar made a noise, it allowed pheasants to fly away rather than being chopped up and killed by machinery. Although it is unclear how many Gratiot farmers used them, calls for farmers to use flushing bars extended well into the 1950s. Shooting pheasants with bands and having to turn in the bands took place well into the early 1950s. Sometimes shooting a bird with an old band became big news. In one instance in Hillsdale County, a farmer shot a five-year-old rooster who had traveled a long distance since its release.

Pheasant hunting during the Depression also presented other challenges. The thefts of hunting dogs, like Setters and Beagles, became a real problem in Gratiot County. In early October 1939,  twelve dogs were stolen in ten days, including one from the Clarence Clark estate valued at $150. This decade also saw the emergence of conflicts between farmers and hunters – chiefly because hunters failed to respect farm property. Trampling crops, leaving gates open so animals could get out, and hunting without permission were just some of the issues about which farmers complained. As a result, at least nine hunting co-operatives started in Seville, Pine River, New Haven, Sumner, and North Shade townships. In these instances, any hunter who wished to hunt on farmland had to ask the farmer for a ticket. Farmers hoped the ticket system regulated who and how they hunted for pheasants. However, hunters outside the county (and more and more “outside” hunters appeared) complained that Gratiot farmers only gave tickets to their friends. The result encouraged “outside” hunters to go onto lands without permission. The Horton Trespass Law was passed to deal with the problem of hunters who tried to hunt on farmlands without permission.

One of the last issues pheasant hunters dealt with in Gratiot County in the late 1930s concerned Sunday hunting, which churches opposed. Pastors and congregations in the county actively campaigned for no hunting on Sundays, which lasted a few years but ended during World War II.

The Boom Years, the 1940s – 1950s

 In July 1942, over 100 young birds were released in the Gratiot-Saginaw game area. Later that decade, the St. Louis Gun Club released 450 young pheasants, thirty in each township. The war years seemed good for the pheasant as fewer men hunted, shotgun shells were rationed, and finding ammunition could be a real challenge. When a small store in Newark Township had shells, farmers for miles around traveled there to get their ration’s worth. In 1944, the Ithaca Future Farmers hosted a pheasant feed at the high school. Two teams of boys were tasked with each hunting thirty pheasants, rabbits, or squirrels to feed the anticipated crowd. The team that failed to bring in the most game had to clean up after the dinner. Other pheasant dinners in the county had been and would be in the news. In 1937, the St. Louis Future Farmers fed 100 guests at St. Louis High School. In 1952, Breckenridge High School had a dinner that fed 120 people – mainly with pheasants shot that fall.

After the war, pheasant hunting continued to improve in Gratiot County as gas rationing ended. Still, the 1948 hunting season was deemed the low end of the ten-year pheasant cycle. For one of the first times, calls went out for a ban on hunting for at least one year for the pheasant population to grow again. However, everything seemed to have stayed the same.

Interlude: Nimrods and Other Problems

Another part of the Gratiot County pheasant season story involved those individuals who suffered consequences either by choice or by chance. Pauline Sparks of New Haven Township became one of the first recorded victims of hunter carelessness. Sparks’ husband discharged his shotgun, hitting his wife in one leg when he laid his gun down while trying to catch a wounded pheasant in a brush pile.

In 1937, stiff fines found those who broke the game laws. Robert Brown of Emerson Township paid $60.85 for shooting a rooster pheasant before the start of the season. Two men near North Star were found in illegal possession of a pheasant in their car. They were charged $35.85 each and had a week to pay or spend time in Judge Potter’s jail in Ithaca.

Then there were other incidents with pheasants. In October 1941, L.D. Decker of Alma saw several pheasant heads peeking above the weeds near his father’s grocery store and promptly shot at one of them. Young Decker then discovered that the heads, impaled on sticks, had been placed there by several of his buddies. All Decker ended up with was a pheasant head. A pheasant hunter northwest of Ithaca chased a rooster into a cornfield and fired at it as it flew over a boulder. He shot at the bird and hit the boulder, which turned out to be a doe that he killed. The incident became front-page news.

Once a pheasant flew through the window in front of a Middleton home, landed on the living room mantle, then flew out again unharmed. At about the same time in 1941, students Jack Detloff and Duane Morton found a dead pheasant in front of the Compton Shop in downtown Alma. The bird, which broke its neck after flying into the store window, was turned over to the Alma Police. Detloff got to keep the bird.

 Melvin Fisk of Ashley found himself in dire straits in early May 1949 when he tried to dodge a flock of pheasants in the middle of the road outside Ashley. Fisk rolled his car three times, but he survived – as did the pheasants.

The 1950s, the Best of Times in Gratiot County

As the 1940s ended, efforts continued to monitor Gratiot County’s pheasant population. During the late spring and early summer of 1949, the State Game Commission continued its “crow counting” program during mating and nesting season in May and June. Usually, the observer traveled a half hour to an hour after sunrise and stopped their car every mile to listen for two minutes for the crow of rooster pheasants. The Commission then used the number of crows heard to estimate how many hens, and rooster pheasants may be in that area. Rural mail carriers also kept records of broods they saw during their mail routes and turned in their findings.

The decade of the 1950s was the high point of success for pheasant hunters in Gratiot County and the State. The 1950 season had a six percent increase in the pheasant population from the previous year, and the season was six days longer. The pheasant population the following year grew another eleven percent. The Conservation department also worked on studying how spring rains and poor temperatures affected hatching by using artificial showers on hen nesting at their facility. The combination of pheasant production, hunting, and the continuation of the pheasant cycle produced ideal conditions for many years in the 1950s.

There were some unusual stories about pheasants during these times. In the winter of 1952, hunters, farmers, and the Conservation department were all stunned by a large number of Ring-neck pheasants killed in an area near Fairgrove, Michigan. Farmers in the area found over fifty birds with broken necks, head wounds, and damaged wings. Some wondered if the birds died when they took off and ran into telephone cables, wires, or poles. After autopsies, authorities agreed that the pheasants died from colliding with something. Because the Thumb had some of the best pheasant hunting in the State, the Fairgrove findings became newsworthy. 

Harsh winters during the 1950s also spelled trouble for the pheasants, moving residents to help by providing food. Feeding the pheasants became a priority for many hunters. In March 1959, Bob’s IGA in Alma had a ten-foot-long loaf of bread for a contest. The customers then had to guess how much the loaf weighed. After the contest ended, owner Bob Hornacek donated the bread to feed local pheasants. In Lee Township in Midland County, a conservation officer found a Ring-neck suspended that had been frozen to a bush by its tail feathers. The rooster went into some grape vines to look for food, and the feathers got stuck after a sleet storm. The officer freed the bird and took it home to a station for recuperation. Some of the worst news about pheasants in the challenging 1950’s winters dealt with illegal hunting. Because the pheasants could be seen more quickly in the snow and the food was hard for them to come by, they became easy targets. In January 1954, four young Mexicans from Alma were arrested in Pine River Township for possessing three hens and one rooster pheasant. They were each given thirty days in jail, a $50 fine, and another $9.85 in costs. Sadly, the conservation officer who arrested the men stated that this was only one of many incidents in Gratiot County regarding the illegal hunting of pheasants.

The Decline of Gratiot Pheasants, the 1960s and 1970s

The decline of the Ring-neck pheasant in Gratiot County and Michigan is a sobering story. The 1950s saw the best hunting in the county and positively affected the local economy. Local stores regularly advertised for small game hunters, urging them to stock up on supplies ahead of the season. Restaurants in the county also declared that they would be open during the season for pheasant hunters who needed to take a mid-day break. In 1959, one million pheasants had been hunted – the lowest total in seven years. These numbers may have been the start of the pheasant slide.  

In the early 1960s, more signs of pheasant decline started to appear. By 1963, mail carriers saw fewer broods of pheasants during their mail deliveries in the late spring-early summer. “Clean Farming” became a new term that illustrated a change in farm practices that promoted the elimination of fencerows and ditches. A column appeared in the Gratiot County Herald in 1967, which openly called the pheasant situation “The pheasant crisis in Gratiot County.” In addition to farmland changes, the combination of predators (fox and raccoon), chemicals, brutal winters, and the normal cycle of decline all added to the disaster for pheasants. Some again called for a closed season (or two) on pheasants to stave off the fall, but it went nowhere. The best that the State instituted were different hunting zones in Michigan.

As a result of the pheasant decline in the 1970s, other things did happen. In 1970, Gratiot County Commissioners sought to petition the State to allow 4-H members to raise pheasants. A year later, the Lucky Clovers and Beebe Beef Clubs tried to raise pheasant chicks. Herb Baxter of St. Louis was instrumental as a 4-H leader in guiding members of the Lucky Clovers in their first attempts to do so. The St. Louis FFA attempted to raise and release pheasants three years later. Kim Bebow of St. Louis succeeded in raising and releasing 22 of the 25 birds he raised. The other St. Louis students in their projects were less successful.

Another side effect of the decline of the Ring-neck pheasant in the county meant that more county hunters went after other small game, such as ducks and geese. By the late 1970s, it seemed that fewer and fewer high school hunters took off the first day of pheasant season – a tradition that had been in practice for decades. Around 1989-1990, Michigan imported approximately 2,000 Sichuan pheasants to help the pheasant population. The experiment failed partly because the pheasants were pen-raised and unable to handle the harsh Michigan winters. If any Sichuan appeared in Gratiot County, newspapers did not carry the news.

The Last Fifty Years and Looking Back

When did pheasant hunting stop becoming a key event across the county? Today, few of us see hunters and their dogs wandering across clover and hay stubble fields on the first day of pheasant season as Gratiot County once did. One important group in the county that has sought to educate the public about the Ring-neck pheasant and its need for habitat is Pheasants Forever Chapter 90. There most likely are other people, organizations, and conservation efforts in recent years that have attempted to increase the Ring-neck population in Gratiot County. These all should be recognized, listened to, and supported.

To this day, I can clearly remember, as a boy, the first time that I saw my father clean a pheasant. I also have clear images of him carefully walking through a meadow behind our Beagle, waiting for a bird to fly. I also recall hearing and seeing my father dread the night he thought he accidentally shot a hen pheasant while walking beside a cornfield. Luckily on that hunt, he was not the expert shot he had always been, as the hen (if he hit it) got up and ran away.

Just after the Ice Storm of 1976, I was in his truck as he drove under the northbound US -27 overpass near the Cloverleaf Restaurant. He began shouting when he saw a flock of pheasants, primarily roosters, coming out to the edge of State Road near the gas stations to find food. He then drove straight home, gathered a large can of shelled corn, returned to the flock, and proceeded to throw shelled corn out the window at the pheasants while driving up and down State Road. I remember passing the birds several times as one of us sought to feed the pheasants after that brutal ice storm.

Two winters ago, I was looking outside one of our windows at something nesting in our Pine trees. It turned out to be a huge rooster pheasant. Later I placed birdseed and shelled corn beneath the trees.

It was all about respecting the pheasants in Gratiot County.

Copyright 2022 James M Goodspeed

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