I never realized South Dakota’s pheasants and hunting seasons were the least bit controversial until I was out of college and working for the wire service in Pierre.
I grew up in a farm family whose members hunted pheasants. We had a slew of the birds on the land and we hunted them in season. We ate what we took, we didn’t waste and I figured that’s the way it was everywhere.
I never cared much for pheasants in a meal. Too stringy and too many BBs that jarred a guy’s teeth. Pheasants and BBs were like bass and bones to me. I never liked picking through the bones in a piece of bass. We didn’t have to do it often. Our land included a pond my dad and my uncle called the “bass dam,” but I only remember a few bass ever being caught there. Mostly I remember eating bullheads. My mom turned them into pretty tasty meals, although all through the meal she sat and worried whether one of her kids would choke on a bone.
But, pheasants. This is the big season opener for pheasant hunters in South Dakota. The weather forecasts suggest a pretty nice weekend for pounding through cane fields and shelterbelts. I’d guess a fair number of folks will be out doing that. I wish them good fortune and safe hunting.
I didn’t know until I started working as a news reporter in Pierre that pheasants were imported to the state. A state Game, Fish and Parks poster says pheasants were released for the first time in 1908 in Spink County. By 1934, every county in the state had a pheasant hunting season.
I was born well after that, so I grew up never having known a time when pheasants weren’t scurrying through the weeds in a fence row or cackling away in a corn field somewhere and when hunters weren’t out in the fall trying to take two or three of the birds home for supper.
So, our state bird is an immigrant. I learned that when my wire-service boss assigned me to report on a study some folks had done regarding the relationship between the number of foxes in the state and the number of pheasants. That assignment came in 1970, if I remember correctly. A group of folks believed the pheasant population was being decimated by a rising fox population. I wrote some stories about the study. I wrote some stories about another group. They said habitat was the key to the pheasant population. The two groups challenged each other's statistics, findings and conclusions, although they did it in a less aggressive way than people challenge each other today, especially online.
I don’t recall the upshot of my stories. I remember thinking there might be some validity in both points of view. I also remember that I’d never seen a single fox on our land in the entire time I lived there. I saw some Soil Bank acres, and they sure seemed to hold a lot of pheasants.
I saw a coyote once, over west. I’d shut down the tractor for the day. The sun was low on the horizon. Dust still hung in the air from the drag I’d been pulling. Sun shining through the curtain of dust created cool colors over the land. I was kneeling, making adjustments to the drag. I felt eyes on me. I looked up. A coyote was maybe 20 yards away. He studied me for a quiet moment then turned and loped off, totally unafraid, as if that part of the universe was his. When I told my dad, he nodded and said, “Yeah, you don’t often see one, but they’re around.” If I’d been a brash kid, I’d have replied, “Well, duh.”
Over the years the number of pheasants has grown and fallen. When I was a kid, we always seemed to have enough to hunt. I base informal counts I took as the young kid who walked through the brush to scare up birds. Eventually, I graduated to carrying a shotgun, but my job still was to scare up birds for the adults. No controversy there, just a good time.