Enjoying our State Bird

A delicious aroma filled our home when I arrived yesterday evening after a long day of meetings and other activities. We were having pheasant noodle soup for dinner. I had cooked pheasant for dinner on Monday evening and the leftovers were incorporated into a delicious soup with noodles and vegetables for last night’s meal. Mmmm . . .

I think that South Dakota is unique among the states in the fact that we hunt and eat our state bird. Actually I don’t hunt anymore and I never did hunt birds, but I have friends who are skillful hunters and they share the bounty of their fall harvest with us by supplying a few pheasants for our freezer. The other states where we have lived have had state birds that are too small to make for much nutrition if eaten. Montana and North Dakota both have the Western Meadowlark as their state bird. Illinois chose the Northern Cardinal and Idaho claims the Mountain Bluebird as its state bird. They all are relatively small birds when compared with the ring-necked pheasant.

Unlike all of the other states where we have lived, South Dakota has chosen a bird that stays in the state all year long. The other states’ birds are snowbirds that spend their winters in warmer southern climates. I think it is kind of nice that we have chosen a bird that is at least willing to spend the winter with us.

We are also unique, however, in having chosen a state bird that is not a native. In the spring of 1881, United States counsel general Owen Nickerson Denny and his wife Gertrude Jane Hall Denny shipped pheasants, along with other Chinese birds and plants from Shanghai to Oregon in hopes of establishing a population there. Most of the pheasants died traveling from Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula to Portland, Oregon. It is uncertain whether any of the birds from this first shipment remained to establish a population in the US, but subsequent shipments of pheasants in 1882 and 1884 were successful in populating Oregon and Washington with the birds. The birds were exported from Oregon and Washington to other states and now they have such firmly established populations that they seem native to much of the United States. They certainly behave like locals here in South Dakota, populating farm fields, highway barrow pits and much of the open prairie of our state.

The birds are quite attractive, with their brightly colored feathers, but their behavior doesn’t engender much sympathy from those of us who enjoy them as an occasional source of food. Like other poultry, they seem to have a lot of body and a very small amount of brain. Their success at thriving in the sometimes harsh winters of South Dakota is somewhat offset by their erratic behavior of running and flying straight into traffic on our state’s roads. It has been quite a while since I last hit one with a vehicle. That was back in 2005 when my “unbreakable” headlight in a new pickup truck proved to be so, though the same was not true of the cheap plastic bracket that held the headlight and is a good seller for parts dealers at about $85 each. The damage to vehicles and people is relatively light, however, compared with other critters that are known to wander the roads around here. This fall friends encountered a black angus cow on a dark highway in Wyoming and that was the end of that car, though luckily no people were injured in the accident.

The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks and the conservation organization Pheasants Forever conduct annual surveys to count the birds. Hunting is allowed only of roosters to keep the population strong. The biggest threat to healthy populations of the birds, however, isn’t the roads or hunting, but rather the loss of habitat. Harsh winters and drought conditions also contribute to declines in the population. We hit our modern day low in population in 2013 when the roadside count was 1.52 birds per mile and an estimated 6.2 million birds were in the state. The harvest that year was just under a million birds. The 2017 count was higher in some areas, and the harvest was similar to recent years at around a million birds. The addition of more acres of Conservation Reserve Program lands has combined with landowners providing more walk in hunting access points to keep pheasant hunters happy and excited about each season.

As I have said, I’ve never practiced the art of hunting birds, but I don’t mind eating them from time to time. I joke that if I were forced to living off of the land, my first step would be to leave some cracked corn in my backyard shed and slam the door when the turkeys go inside to get the corn. Other than that and our modest backyard garden, I don’t have the skills or equipment to provide my own food. I’m pretty dependent on all of the producers and distributors who keep the shelves stocked at the grocery store. The peas and carrots in last night’s soup didn’t come from our garden and the durum wheat from which the pasta was made didn’t come from around here - most likely it is from North Dakota.

An awful lot of the food that we eat does quite a bit of traveling before it gets to our table. I have read that the average American can save more fuel by the choices of food to eat than by choices about driving their car. It’s probably true. I’ve gotten used to eating apples and oranges year round. We like fresh spinach every week regardless of the weather outside. We’re not too big on processed food in our house but we’ve been known to snack on dried apricots that were shipped from Turkey from time to time.

It is probably better for the world for us to sit down to supper of our state bird than some of the foods that we eat, even if our state bird is an immigrant. I did really enjoy the soup and there is enough left over for lunch today, too.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!