From Shanghai to Oregon - The start of something beautiful

By Jim Ward for the Observer October 05, 2012 02:09 pm

Ken Mortensen, manager of the Purple Sage Game Farm near Caldwell, Idaho, inspects one of his incubators on hatch day. Each of his four incubators can hold more than 21,000 olive-colored pheasant eggs. The pheasantry supplies more than 40,000 rooster pheasants a year for release in several states, including birds for release at Ladd Marsh. JIM WARD photo
Ken Mortensen, manager of the Purple Sage Game Farm near Caldwell, Idaho, inspects one of his incubators on hatch day. Each of his four incubators can hold more than 21,000 olive-colored pheasant eggs. The pheasantry supplies more than 40,000 rooster pheasants a year for release in several states, including birds for release at Ladd Marsh. JIM WARD photo

A dense blanket of fog greeted the ship, Otago, as it pulled into the Portland dock – March 13, 1881. Amidst the usual cargo of spices and fine silks were several crates of rather weird-looking birds. Each bird had a green head, a red chest and a striking white ring around his neck. The birds were pheasants from Shanghai, China, and this would be the first time such fowl would set feet on American soil. 

Standing over the crates and preparing to unload the birds was Judge Owen Denny. Denny was the U.S. Consul General to China and had spent many years in that country living among the Chinese and the native wildlife. Denny’s interest in these rather gaudy birds was simple.

“The Chinese farmers take the pheasants with nets and market them alive, but the fact that the birds are so thin and poor induced me to purchase them by the dozen and feed them until they were fat and fit for the table. On occasion, I had in my enclosure a large number of extraordinarily handsome birds, and while admiring them I thought – What would I not give to be able to turn them adrift in Oregon?” Then and there his resolve was made. 

Denny’s wife, Gertrude, shared his passion for bringing some of the native plants and birds from their Chinese countryside back to the U.S. Among the ringnecks, they brought chefoo partridges and Mongolian sand grouse – neither of which survived the upcoming introduction. They also brought many plant species, including bamboo. Denny and Gertrude had both traveled the Oregon Trail to the West as children. Gertrude was actually the last remaining survivor of the Whitman massacre.

The couple planned to release the birds near their home in the Willamette Valley. The first release of pheasants had a shaky start, but after more birds were released in the next two years, they prospered. They did so well that in 1892 the state of Oregon sponsored its first pheasant season. That season hunters took around 50,000 birds. Soon pheasants were moved to many other states, and today millions are harvested each fall. The ring-necked pheasant is the state bird of South Dakota.

Raising pheasants

Ken Mortensen knows very well how popular pheasants have become. Mortensen is the manager of the Purple Sage Game Farm near Caldwell, Idaho. His operation supplies more than 40,000 rooster pheasants for release in many states including Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming each year. His farm keeps about 6,000 mature birds as breeders. During the peak season, the birds produce around 4,000 eggs per day, which are hatched in huge incubators with a total capacity of 84,000 olive-colored pheasant eggs. The eggs will hatch in 23 days. Upon hatching they’ll be placed into large, heated brooders. As they grow, they’ll be moved into larger pens until they are mature enough to be released into the wild. 

It would seem natural for Mortensen to become a pheasant grower. His father, Harold, shared his love for birds with Ken and his five brothers when they were children. They raised all types of fowl – especially rare, domestic breeds of pigeons – and entered them in shows around the region. Later, Ken took an interest in falconry and became a master falconer, training birds to the sport and mentoring would-be falconers. With his father’s help, the pheasantry began 21 years ago.

Ring-necked pheasants raised in a penned environment don’t live long in the wild. They get their water from a plastic drink cup, eat pelleted feed and have no knowledge of predators. Radio-telemetry studies, by state agencies and private organizations such as Pheasant Forever, have shown that as few as 1 percent of the birds from a fall release survive to the next breeding season. 

Most of the interest in current pheasant releases involves releasing birds just prior to hunting – not as a means to establish or enhance a local pheasant population. Much like fish stocking programs that provide catchable fish for the area’s anglers, pheasant releases provide increased hunting opportunities for sportspeople. Many of the release programs are designed for young hunters or women just getting involved with the sport. Our own Ladd Marsh is a good example.

For more than 30 years, young rooster pheasants have been released at the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Management Area south of La Grande. The management area used to have large pheasant pens near Hot Lake. Started birds were brought in from the state’s pheasant breeding facility near Corvallis. After a few weeks of acclimation and growth, nearly 800 birds were released on the marsh throughout the fall hunting season. The game farm was later shut down for financial reasons. 

The state soon began a program to help with the finances of its upland game bird programs and instituted a game bird stamp. Interested hunters had to purchase the stamp for a small fee in order to hunt pheasants, grouse, partridges and quail. Dollars raised would help pay for habitat enhancement, research and later attempts to introduce other species. Red-legged partridge and Sichuan pheasants were part of this program, but failed to take hold in the state.

Sportsmen’s groups, such as the Oregon Hunters Association and Pheasants Forever, have chipped in thousands of dollars to help with upland game bird enhancement in the state. The OHA has supported pheasant releases for youth and women’s hunts for many years. 

Today, the ring-necked pheasant haunts many of the marshes, wetlands and farms of this country. Each spring, the morning silence is broken with the calls of these dazzling cocks. And, every autumn, millions of hearty souls will pursue this rather cunning fowl with the hopes of putting a succulent breast on the family table. Owen and Gertrude Denny would be so proud.