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Pheasant Not Present at First Thanksgiving Dinner

Dear Bird Folks,

Instead of eating turkey, a friend of mine has pheasant for dinner on Thanksgiving. That got me wondering: Do you think the Pilgrims had pheasant on their menu at the first Thanksgiving? Also, do you have any idea what the heck pheasant under glass is? I hear it on TV all the time, but I’ve never seen it in any restaurants.

– Chad, Truro, MA


It’s the holidays, Chad,

During the holidays we are supposed to be kind to one another. (I’m not sure why only during the holidays, but it’s probably because you-know-who is watching us.) So, I’m going to be polite here. But do you really expect me to write a column about pheasant eating and pheasant preparation? I’m not Rachael Ray, Gordon Ramsay, Chef Boyardee or any of those other barbarians. I’m the guy who likes birds (and not in a gastronomical way). Asking me who ate which bird on Thanksgiving and why a particular bird is served a certain way is like asking Roy Rogers for his favorite horse casserole recipe or asking Mary how to roast a “little lamb.” It’s a topic that’s too sad to talk about…at least it is for me.

The short answer to your first question is, no. Ring-necked Pheasants, served under glass or any other way, were not eaten at the first Thanksgiving. I know many folks think pheasants are a symbol of wild America, but the truth is, pheasants are the new kids in town. They’re an import. Like Hyundais and Godzilla, pheasants are a product of Asia and didn’t begin breeding in North America until 1881. This was 260 years after the first Thanksgiving dinner was long over. (Although, there were probably leftovers still around even 260 years later.)

According to, Owen and Gertrude Denny were the first people to successfully introduce pheasants into North America. At the age of ten, Gertrude and her family traveled across the country by wagon train (yes, a wagon train, just like in the movies). Sadly, Gertrude lost her father during the infamous Whitman Massacre, an event I don’t know much about, but it doesn’t sound good. After the tragedy her mother somehow managed to get the rest of the family safely to the West Coast, where Gertrude eventually met and married Owen Denny, a guy who ultimately became a U.S. government official in China. (Are you still with me, Chad?) The Dennys enjoyed China and when they returned home to Portland, Oregon they brought back a few mementos from their trip, including exotic plants (bamboo), beautiful gifts (probably Chinese finger traps) and sixty live Ring-necked Pheasants.

As you might have expected, only a few of the birds survived the trip. If the Dennys were going to populate Portland with pheasants they’d need more birds. The Dennys then had to decide if they should go back to China and get more birds, or if they should stay in America and start a chain of fast food restaurants that were “always open.” They opted for the pheasants (and let some other Denny invent the Grand Slam Breakfast). Over the next few years they brought back several more batches of pheasants from China. The pheasants loved it here. (Evidently, the birds were tired of living off of fried rice and egg foo young.) In fact, the introduction was so successful that only ten years after the first pheasants arrived in Oregon a hunting season was proposed. On the first day of the season hunters killed nearly 50,000 pheasants. (Now that’s a massacre.) Welcome to the New World.

Over the coming decades Ring-necked Pheasants either naturally spread or were introduced to other parts of the country; now their U.S. population is in the millions. I’m not a big fan of introducing foreign species into our ecosystem and was surprised to learn that one particular state (I won’t say which state, but it’s just south of North Dakota) voted to make the Ring-necked Pheasant their state bird. Are they kidding? Couldn’t they have picked a native bird to represent the sate? Why a foreign bird? That’s just nuts. Even the mayor of Toronto wouldn’t do something that crazy…or maybe he would.

Whether they are imported or not, Ring-necked Pheasants are still interesting birds. They are fast flyers (for short distances) and strong runners. With powerful legs, pheasants can quickly sneak through the underbrush to avoid trouble. In the spring the males announce their territories by crowing, or at least it’s called crowing. It’s more of a “korrk-kok,” sounding like the bird is choking on a piece of gum. When I was a kid there was a big pheasant farm near my house. Every morning the entire neighborhood would be awakened by the sounds of choking pheasants. Everyone complained, but I loved the sound. (Even then I was an oddball.)

As for pheasant under glass, I agree with you, Chad. That’s one of those dishes that everyone seems to be acquainted with, but knows little about. It’s like cherries jubilee and baked Alaska, except those two dishes don’t require killing birds (plus they’re yummy desserts). The way I understand it, pheasant under glass is roasted pheasant that is served with a glass dome over it. The idea of the dome is to prevent the pheasant from drying out. But I have another suggestion: Just leave the skin and feathers on the bird and let it run free. I like that idea much better.