Welcome to The STEM Sessions Podcast. I am Jarl Cody, your host and narrator.
Growing up in Montana, where the Great Plains met the Rocky Mountains, I was used to seeing any number of wildlife species. On any given day I would frequently see white-tailed and mule deer, beavers, song birds, and skunks, and slightly less frequently I would see bald eagles, great horned owls, barn owls, coyotes, badgers, and elk.
These animals were part of my upbringing for as far back as I remember; so much so, I simply assumed they were all fauna native to Montana. Then came a day, maybe 20 years ago, when I found out an animal I saw every week was not native. My mind was blown, and that isn’t all that much of an exaggeration.
How could an animal I saw scuttling through hay bottoms, grain fields, and road side ditches – one that was also a popular game animal every hunting season – not be native to Montana?? And even more trippy, it isn’t even native to the United States!
Cut to present day, I finally got around to researching the full history of this introduced species. And that’s what I’m sharing now.
This is The STEM Sessions Podcast – Episode Seven. Introduced, But Not Necessarily Invasive
The phrase “invasive species” is used often in discussions of ecology, climate change, and land management, yet the definition tends to vary as the source varies. For the purposes of this episode, we’ll use the definition found in United States Executive Order 13112. Signed by President Clinton on February 3, 1999, it defines an invasive species as “an alien species whose introduction does, or is likely to, cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health”. Further, Executive Order 13112 defines an alien (or introduced) species as “any species, including its seeds, eggs, spores, or other biological material capable of propagating that species, that is not native to that ecosystem”.
Per the United States Geological Survey (USGS), invasive species cause more than $100 billion in damages to the U.S. economy each year. Damage includes “crop decimation, clogging of water facilities and waterways, wildlife and human disease transmission, threats to fisheries, increased fire vulnerability, and adverse effects for ranchers and farmers”. Non-financially quantifiable damage includes habitat destruction, disease introduction, preying on native species, and out-competing them for resources.
Some invasive species are introduced accidentally. A good example of such an invasive species is the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes of North America. Originally from Eastern Europe, they were brought to North America in the ballast waters of ocean-crossing cargo ships in the 1980s. They easily out-competed native species for resources, and in ten years, had infested all of the Great Lakes. Today, the zebra mussel is found in 29 states having stowed away on boats moving between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basins.
Other invasive species are purposefully introduced – almost always with good intentions. In the late 19th Century, in New York’s Central Park, to celebrate William Shakespeare, one hundred European Starlings – a bird mentioned in Henry IV – were released. Today, more than 200 million European starlings make North America their home. They compete with native species for resources, devastate crops, and contaminate water sources.
However, not every introduced species becomes invasive. Some don’t out-compete the native wildlife for resources or cause economic harm. In fact, many settle in so nicely – actually co-existing with the native organisms – they can be mistaken as native animals themselves.
One such introduced species makes its home on the northern Great Plains, the interior West, the Midwest, and the Atlantic Coast. Approximately 19 states and five Canadian provinces host stable populations; populations that don’t seem to negatively impact their environments. Populations that have been established for five or six human generations, which is long enough that most of the human residents of those 19 states and five provinces do not realize they have an alien species in their midst. Phasianus colchicus – the ring-necked pheasant.
Phasianus colchicus is native to the temperate geographies of Asia, from the Black and Caspian Seas on the west to Korea and China on the east. While most species of pheasants live in dense tropical forests, the ring-necked prefers brush and open fields; a trait that made it attractive for introduction to both North America and Europe.
The male ring-necked pheasant has a red face, a dark neck, iridescent body plumage of copper, golds, and browns, and a distinctive white collar – hence the name ring-necked. Females lack the showiness; instead having feathers of browns and beiges, allowing them to blend in with their surroundings while nesting. To evade trouble, both sexes can fly in short burst of 40 miles an hour. During mating season, the male’s rooster-like crowing can be heard as far as a mile away.
Most sources trace today’s ring-necked pheasant populations in North America to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. In March of 1881, Owen Nickerson Denny and his wife Gertrude Jane Hall Denny shipped around 60 pheasants from China to Port Townsend, WA. The couple became familiar with the birds while Owen served as U.S. consul general in Shanghai, and suspected they would thrive as game birds in their home state of Oregon.
The majority of those 60 birds did not survive the trip between Port Townsend and Portland, OR. Some sources say the survivors were released on the lower Columbia River, but it cannot be confirmed whether or not this release resulted in an established population.
In 1882 and 1884, the Dennys tried again; shipping more pheasants from China. This time, successfully introducing them to the Willamette Valley in Oregon and Protection Island near Port Townsend. Ten years later, the Oregon population had grown to hundreds of thousands and spread into Washington. The Protection Island population flourished and crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca – a journey of approximately 20 miles – and colonized Vancouver Island in Canada.
Following this success in the Pacific Northwest, ring-necked pheasants were introduced across the country. Some were new imports from China, others were descendants of the original Washington and Oregon populations. In just over one hundred years, the ring-necked pheasant became a fixture across the northern U.S. and southern Canada, even being named the state bird of South Dakota.
The ring-necked pheasant is so entrenched in North America, its image adorns paintings, sculptures, business logos, a United States quarter, and official postage stamps. In areas where populations have decreased, efforts have been taken to stabilize and improve their numbers. The species is an important piece of the landscape.
There have been reports of male ring-necked pheasants harassing other ground-nesting birds, like the Greater Prairie-Chicken, and female pheasants have been seen laying their own eggs in the nests of other birds, but these incidences are rare and haven’t been shown to significantly impact the populations of other species. So even though the ring-necked pheasant is an introduced species to North America – and while it is possible it would have been considered invasive at the turn of the 20th Century had the term existed then – it has integrated so thoroughly into our modern ecosystems, most people don’t realize the ring-necked pheasant is an alien in their landscape.
Thank you for listening to this episode of The STEM Sessions Podcast. I do my best to ensure all information I provide is accurate, but I’m fallible like everyone else. So I encourage you to do your own research on the topic we discussed, and confirm what I’ve said. Corrections and new information are always welcome.
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