By Edgar E. Castillo
What would you say if I told you that in the late 1920s a 66-page report was generated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding the relocation and transplanting of native avian species outside their native range, as well as introducing foreign gamebirds into North America? These shadowy shipments could be described as “… cloaked in darkness,” going back as far as the Colonial times and well into the 1920s.
The bulletin tells of these attempts, or rather, biological experiments, across the country without the knowledge of ornithologists. The only records were of those that were buried in the back of newspapers, insignificant blurbs in sportsmen’s periodicals, and the hazy memories of men who were involved or experienced such rare encounters.
Yes, we all know there have been both game- and non-gamebirds introduced successfully into the United States. Some were intentional, others were accidents.
The European Starling was purposely released because of someone merely wanting to admire and see the birds mentioned by Shakespeare in his literary works. In 1890 Eugene Schieffelin released 60 starlings in Central Park, NY. These prolific birds spread throughout the country and quickly became a nuisance. It is now estimated that starlings number more than 200 million! The birds have had a negative impact on the US economy and ecosystem. Starlings are considered invasive and are huntable in most states with few restrictions. Some locales took the matters into their own hands, utilizing the long arm of the law and dozens of mischievous little boys to curb the annoying birds.
In the 1940s my father-in-law would gather with other boys on the courthouse lawn in Olathe, KS, and wait for county deputies to fire shotguns into starling-filled trees. The boys would hurriedly pick up dead birds at a nickel a piece and toss them into trashcans.
On the other hand, there were success stories in releasing foreign birds on American soil. A U.S. diplomatic attaché to China, Owen Denny, sailed across the sea with a ship full of pheasants, and in 1881 released them in Oregon. Within a short time the Chinese birds adapted and prospered. The ring-necked pheasant became so common they seemed native. Within a few years a season was set and bird hunters fell in love with the colorful court jester of the upland birds and its cunningness to fool both hunter and dog.
Sportsmen on the East Coast who saw the potential of importing gamebirds to replenish their diminishing stock of upland game turned to another foreign bird: Hungarian Partridge. “Huns” had already been introduced by Benjamin Franklin’s son-in-law in the late 18th century in New Jersey with hope they would take to the land. Reports were sporadic, but in time it appeared they struggled to retain a foothold. In the 1900s, several western and Midwest states were seeing success with Huns. New York stood alone as far as the only eastern state having a huntable population well into the 1960s. So much, that the New York Times blazed headlines that the imported birds were flourishing and thriving. This however came to a standstill in the early 1970s when the state’s Hun population diminished so much that the season was closed forever. A few reports here and there of wild Huns dot upstate New York’s countryside to this day, but most are fleeting glimpses encountered by ruffed grouse hunters.
There were other success stories, such as the elusive Himalayan snowcock in Nevada, and chukars in the arid and mountainous regions of the country. These birds proved to be adaptable and highly sought after by dedicated wingshooters who curse the birds and where they live.
Less known, however, were many shadowy incidents involving many varieties of gamebirds that were relocated in an attempt to establish self-sustaining populations in various parts of the United States. Others were imported to America and systematically released. The USDA report listed over 50 species!
The report speaks of dozens of native gamebirds relocated to various parts of the country to become a new source of game for the indiscriminate bird hunter. However, some attempts were done to expand native ranges and to sustain and/or replenish diminishing local populations. Two of the most relocated birds were the bobwhite quail and ruffed grouse. These two appeared to be sent to the four corners of the country, while other birds such as the California quail were introduced in Illinois, Massachusetts and New York.
The foreign birds that were brought over are the real mystery. These international gamebirds were gathered up and set free upon our land, with no real thought on the possible ecological dangers and adverse effects they could have. They came from Argentina, Scotland, Germany, Scandinavia, and a scattering of European and Latin American countries and released in various regions depending on their habitat needs in the hope they would flourish. Many private individuals and sportsmen appeared to be behind such importations. According to the report, most have failed.
Some were set free on a large plantation off the coast of Georgia on Sapelo Island. Regular reports appear to be sent “somewhere” to interested parties as to how the specific gamebird species was fairing. To add to the mystery, some birds such as tinamous (from Guatemala, 1923), curassows & chachalacas (from Mexico, 1923), and guinea fowl were whisked away for observation and experiments to other nearby islands with names like Blackbeard and Jekyll Island. Talk about a modern day Island of Dr. Moreau!
Can you imagine the effects caused by any of these “experiments,” if most of them would have succeeded? I’m talking about a current future where one could hunt the second largest gamebird, the capercaillie, in the Northwoods, or chase sharptails up and down the East Coast. What a world it would be! Bird hunters would salivate at the opportunity. However, though it may sound like an upland oasis if these would have succeeded, we must ask ourselves what would be the repercussions to our current gamebird species?
Such a silent invasion could have made America an upland bird hunting Shangri La … or it could have been devastating.