Pheasants of Detroit
Ring-necked pheasants are generally found in rural fields and prairies. That’s why many people are surprised to learn the bird is thriving in Detroit, Michigan. As the city has seen its human population decline over the years, parcels of land that used to be occupied are now vacant and overgrown – perfect habitat for pheasants.
Murals of pheasants have popped up all over town, and businesses have been named after them. The birds have endeared themselves to many Detroiters by representing a connection to both the city and the natural world.
But some worry coming development will mean less open space in the city, and are concerned what that would mean for pheasants and other wildlife. As a result, different local groups are trying to conserve land within the city to ensure pheasants have the habitat they need to thrive in the Motor City for years to come.
This episode was adapted in part from a documentary titled, PHEASANTS OF DETROIT.
Host: Dan Wanschura
Producers: Diane Cheklich, Diane Weiss, Dan Wanschura
Editor: Patrick Shea
Music: Blue Dot Sessions
DAN WANSCHURA, HOST: Brandon Halthon is 10 years old. He and his seven year-old brother Jaxon Head are tip-toeing along, trying to sneak up on a ring-necked pheasant.
BRANDON HALTHON: I see him from right here. It’s two of them!
WANSCHURA: The birds are mostly brown. They have long tail feathers and are a little bigger than a chicken.
JAXON HEAD: Where did he go?
HALTHON: Oh, he right there.
WANSCHURA: The males have a white ring around their necks and colorful blue-green heads with bright red patches around their eyes.
HALTHON: His head is like a flower. So you cannot see the flower moving.
WANSCHURA: The brothers are trying to spot the bird in knee-high grass – a perfect habitat for pheasants to hide.
HALTHON: I don’t see him, bro-bro, do you?
WANSCHURA: Brandon puts a pair of binoculars to his eyes while Jaxon sneaks forward.
HALTHON: I don’t see it! Oh man, bro-bro.
HEAD: I see it! I see the tail!
WANSCHURA: Then with a sudden flutter, the pheasant launches into the air just a few feet from Jaxon.
HEAD: Oh dang! That scared me. He was right there?! I should have known he was right there.
WANSCHURA: Pheasants are usually found in rural fields and prairies. But Brandon and Jaxon aren’t in the countryside. They're smack dab in Detroit, Michigan. Even with all its traffic and buildings, the Motor City has a thriving pheasant population.
In fact, the bird has become an icon here.
DIANE CHEKLICH, BYLINE: Detroit is probably the only major city in the whole U.S. that has a population of wild game birds walking around, like literally on urban streets, right? You mentioned you saw them along the highway, and they’re all over the city. You don’t see pheasants in New York or Chicago or San Francisco. So it’s sort of a cool thing that’s unique to Detroit.
WANSCHURA: This is Points North. A show about the land, water, and inhabitants of the upper Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.
Today on the show, the pheasants of Detroit. Why they’re in this city and what’s being done to make sure they stay. Here’s producer Diane Cheklich.
CHEKLICH: If you didn’t know there are pheasants in Detroit, you’re not alone.
DEREK SEDERLUND: I do know there are pheasants out in rural areas, but I was very shocked that there are some in the city of Detroit, especially.
HOLLY VAUGHN: I was shocked when I first moved to this area – to see them.
CHEKLICH: That’s Derek Sederlund and Holly Vaughn. And despite their amazement, pheasants have been in Detroit for decades.
In the 1950 census, Detroit was the fifth largest city in the country. Since then, its dropped to 27th. As a result, parts of the city are now vacant and overgrown.
But as people moved out, pheasants moved in.
NATALIE CYPHER: Any parks or parking lots that tend to get tall grasses and things like that, that would be their preferred habitat and we actually have a lot of that here in the city of Detroit.
CHEKLICH: Natalie Cypher is with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. For the past few years, she’s been organizing pheasant walks every spring.
CYPHER: First thing we’re going to do is we’re going to take a walk this way, because there’s a pretty good location that I’ve been seeing male pheasants for, like I mentioned, about the last month or so.
CHEKLICH: Ring-necked pheasants were brought to North America from Asia in the 1880’s as a game bird. They were and still are popular to hunt. They’re also popular with curious birders.
CYPHER: There’s a pheasant on the berm! A pheasant on the berm – walking through the middle. Oh wow, this is a nice view. He’s giving us a little bit more than the other one did.
You can see his ring neck. Beautiful! What a treat.
CHEKLICH: Natalie thinks the birds might have gotten to Detroit by following railway corridors. They’re direct lines into the city with plenty of brushy areas for food and cover. However it happened, pheasants have become part of life for many Detroiters.
(sound of pheasant crowing)
BERNADINE HEAD: Oh, that’s my alarm clock. You know, he wakes me up every morning. And when he wakes me up, I got to get up because he not going to let you go back to sleep.
CHEKLICH: Bernadine Head has lived in Detroit her whole life. Most mornings, she says she wakes up to a pheasant crowing outside.
HEAD: It’s a good thing, because I’ve gotten used to it. And sometimes when the clock do go off, I don’t get right up, you know. I just hit the snooze button. With him, I can’t hit the snooze button.
(sound of pheasant crowing)
CHEKLICH: It’s a similar experience for Diane Van Buren, who lives on Detroit’s east side.
DIANE VAN BUREN: Five o’clock in the morning, he starts crowing. So you know – Phil’s up, so it must be time to get up and get the day on.
CHEKLICH: Phil is the nickname she gave to a pheasant hanging around her house. In fact, Phil is the reason Diane lives here.
VAN BUREN: Before we even thought about buying the house, there was Phil. And Phil was walking along the side yard next to us and that was it. I said, ‘We have to buy this house.’ Because there can’t be anything more remarkable than seeing a pheasant walking alongside the house. So the rest is history – we bought the house. And Phil has just been a part of the family.
CHEKLICH: Pheasants are also a popular muse for artists in the city. Murals of the bird have popped up on everything from fences to stores, to restaurants – even houses.
A Detroit-based brewery has even named itself Faison which is French for “pheasant.”
And for Andrew Koper who plays on an adult soccer team from the Corktown neighborhood, “Pheasants” sounded like the perfect team name.
ANDREW KOPER: You know, we’re not going to be the Lions, we’re not going to be the Tigers or some fierce animal. Well, let’s be the Pheasants – kind of an ironic joke. And so we loved it, it was really funny, it was very Detroit. And so that’s how the Corktown Pheasants came to be.
CHEKLICH: But all the vacant land that makes Detroit appealing to pheasants is also appealing to developers. And while investment in a city can be good, it also worries some residents.
TRICIA TALLEY: When you have the development of an area like Detroit, the development is usually based on attracting new people to the neighborhood, and we wanted the development to be based on the people that are in the neighborhood.
CHEKLICH: Tricia Talley is another life-long Detroiter. She’s the executive director for the North Corktown Neighborhood Association, an area within walking distance to downtown.
Tricia says they try to embrace development but also advocate for the things that make their neighborhood unique. And that includes the pheasants.
TALLEY: So a lot of our concentration was, ‘If you’re going to build housing here, we want the housing to be affordable and we also want to preserve open space.’ And that’s where the bird habitat comes in.
CHEKLICH: Tricia wants to make sure pheasants always have the space to thrive in Detroit. That’s why she’s working to establish a bird sanctuary within her community. It would be roughly half an acre, made up of six, vacant land parcels – natural habitat for all sorts of wildlife complete with trails and benches.
TALLEY: It's beneficial for the mental health of the neighborhood. The physical health – being able to have somewhere to actually go and decompress, especially after going through something like the pandemic.
CHEKLICH: Tricia estimates the cost of purchasing the land at around $100,000. And she’s working to establish the sanctuary under a community land trust. That would protect it from future development and give it a non-profit status.
Other residents and community groups are working on similar conservation projects all over Detroit.
And the city’s parks department is doing the same. In 2022, it released its strategic plan for the next ten years. That was shaped by extensive community outreach and feedback, and access to nature is high on the priority list. It includes goals like having a park within a 10 minute walk for every city resident, and creating 1,500 acres of natural space with wildlife in mind.
The ring-necked pheasant has become a sort of poster child for this movement. It serves as an organic connection to Detroit and natural spaces that resonates with many.
Here’s Tricia Talley again.
TALLEY: I’ve always thought the pheasants in our neighborhood was a sign of good things to come. Because so often, people think of Detroit of just this hardcore, urban landscape where survival is just difficult. And it’s not like that. I think the pheasants sort of soften the landscape of the neighborhood.
CHEKLICH: Some might see vacant, unused land as a sign of a city’s regression; but for many Detroiters, it represents something else: habitat for pheasants, the foundation for a healthy community, and a different way for Detroit to lead once again.