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10 Most Popular and Obscure Upland Game Birds in North America

10 Most Popular and Obscure Upland Game Birds in North America

A bird dog retrieves a ring neck pheasant.

Earlier this year we put together a survey to explore the Project Upland audience to help get a better read on our community.

We thank all of you who took the time to answer our barrage of questions ranging from bird dogs, shopping habits, culture, and of course your favorite game birds. As you may have caught our recent look into the Top Three Most Popular and Successful Bird Dog Breeds, this is a less controversial look into that world of favorites.

From the cackling of a rooster to the covey rise of quail, these are the top 10 most popular upland game birds in North America.

No. 1 – Ring-necked pheasant

A Labrador retriever brings back a pheasant | Photo by Steve Oehlenschlager

It’s probably no surprise that this American import is still a staple in our culture. The color palette of a ring-necked pheasant rooster is about as iconic as the blaze orange we wear. Seventy-five percent of the Project Upland audience said they hunt pheasant. It’s important to mention that this is a combination of wild, stocked, and preserve versions of this tasty game bird. That creates a wide availability of opportunities for pheasant hunting in areas of the country that don’t offer suitable habitat for the ringneck.

The pheasant came to the United States in the late 1800s and was also introduced around the world in such places as New Zealand and Europe. They have over the years thrived on American farmland and prairies, becoming a major focus of wildlife management for many states.

South Dakota alone reports that more than 200,000 pheasant hunters will journey to this ringneck mecca each year and harvest upwards of 1 million birds. That’s a lot of tablefare!

The 2016 National Survey conducted by the USFWS estimated there were 726,000 pheasant hunters in the United States. The membership of Pheasants Forever is currently 149,000.

You can catch the iconic ring-necked pheasant in our film shot in Washington state, Pheasant Brand. They’re also a focus of the film Food and Hunting with food writer Hank Shaw which was filmed in Kansas, along with another film set in Nebraska. Pen-raised pheasant appeared in the dog training story, All About the Dogs. You can also see owner of Dakota 283 Kennels hunting pheasant in South Dakota in their origin story: That’s How We Got Started.

 No. 2 – Ruffed grouse

Podcast host Nick Larson exams a ruffed grouse | Photo by A.J. DeRosa

The founding of Project Upland happened in the grouse covers of the Northeast. From there the stories expanded to the fertile hunting grounds of the upper Midwest.

The ruffed grouse has been coined “king of the birds” for a number of cultural reasons, including the difficulty of shooting in thick habitat, the major decline surrounding conservation issues, and their lack of cooperation with bird dogs. Forty-eight percent of the Project Upland audience identified as hunting ruffed grouse.

Some of the most famous pieces of upland literature have been built around this bird—the works of Burton Spiller, George Bird Evans, and William Harnden Foster, just to name a few. Aldo Leopold pointed out their significance many times and is the source of the most iconic quote, “There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting, and ruffed grouse hunting.”

Ruffed grouse occur as far north as parts of Alaska and Canada and as far south as along the Appalachian Mountains in Georgia. Yes, they are in Georgia; I even saw one once!

The Ruffed Grouse Society is currently combating, educating, and researching the major conservation issues that surround this bird from West Nile virus to climate change.

Since Project Upland got its start in ruffed grouse, we’ve created quite a number of films around this bird. Most recent is the film Flushing Grouse in Michigan and the hunting mentor film Live for October in New Hampshire. Past films include Those Moments in Maine, Adventure Awaits in Minnesota, and Camp Thunderbird. The three oldest films in Project Upland—Searching, Partridge Country, and The Experience—all focused on the Northeast of ruffed grouse.

Read: Grouse Hunting Should be on Everyone’s Bucket List

No. 3 – American Woodcock

An American Woodcock during the making of “Legacy” | Photo by A.J. DeRosa

For many of us the idea of hunting ruffed grouse goes hand-in-hand with the American woodcock, 39 percent of the audience to be exact. This bird had been known by many names such as the Mud Bat, Timberdoodle, Bog Sucker, Little Russet Fellow, and more. In the Project Upland film Timber Rocket we explore three young brothers’ paths into upland huunting through what they called, well, “Timber Rockets.”

The American woodcock is a migratory bird and falls under federal law. There are two flyways for this wandering soul—the eastern flyway and central flyway. They migrate as far south as Louisiana and as far north as Canada. Woodcock hunting has become the favorite of many bird dog folk.

As legendary guide “Earl the Pearl” would put it, “They honor the dogs.”

You can catch the American woodcock in other films such as First Season, Noise by the Fire, Moving Forward, The Reward, The Opportunity, and Because They’re Wild.

No. 4 – Bobwhite Quail

A bobwhite quail from the making of the film “Plantation Quail” | Photo by A.J. DeRosa

Ruffed grouse were coined “king of the birds” and the bobwhite quail “prince of game birds.”

The bobwhite is one of the most iconic symbols of southern upland hunting and in recent years has faced one of the sharpest declines of all game birds. There are stable wild bobwhite populations in many places in the United States and Mexico. Many Project Upland writers and much of our audience are passionate about hunting bobwhite quail on public lands and 31 percent of the community said they pursue bobwhite quail. They are the premier game bird of private plantation hunting in the South, but only occur wild in some establishments.

The bobwhite makes an appearance in several upcoming Project Upland films—wild birds in a film featured in Nebraska, and the film Food and Hunting. The film Plantation Quail explores the world of plantation-style hunting on early-released birds. And the film Hard Day Riding explores the overlooked culture of African American bird dog trainers in the plantation quail culture.   

No. 5 – Dove

Dove hunting in casual style | Photo by Jake Terry

The dove includes many species in the United States, some more obscure like the white-winged dove, and the mourning dove being among the most popular of these migratory birds. Some are even deemed invasive like the Eurasian collared-dove which affords generous limitless season in even the summer months. It is said that almost 1 million people hunt dove each season in the United States and 28 percent of the Project Upland audience contributes to that theme.

Project Upland has yet to explore this American tradition in film but that is soon to change.

As I am sure we are all as curious as I was when this data first came in, we will explore a bit deeper than the top five most popular game birds of North America.

Hot on the dove’s heels was the chukar at 22 percent. Yes, I know you chukar folks were foaming at the mouth and yelling, “blasphemy!”

This non-native species has a special nickname, “The Devil’s Bird,” as the most memorable saying surrounding this pursuit is that, “the first time you hunt chukar it’s for fun. After that it’s for revenge.”

The sharp-tailed grouse came to the table at 18 percent; we would have guessed this fine game bird would have come in higher. From there came another non-native species, the Hungarian partridge, at 13 percent. Then came California quail (or valley quail) at 9 percent and the prairie chicken at 7 percent.

A Himalayan snowcock from the film “Holy Grail” | Photo by Wil Sensing

Dead last was the non-native Himalayan snowcock which is only found in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. And we’re pretty sure that of the four people who cited that they hunted them, three were in our film, Holy Grail. Right there with it was the chachalaca which can only be hunted in Texas for the United States.

There are more than 30 upland game bird species in North America. Many, if not all of them, offer amazing opportunities for good table fare, fun pursuit, and all are worthy of words and mention. Depending on where you find yourself in these vast opportunities there are many adventures to be had in pursuit of the uplands. Whether it’s as obscure as the Chachalaca or one of the many native quail or grouse, we will be sure to find our way to them.

View Comments (3)
  • It would be interesting to see where Chukar, Blue Grouse, and Ptarmigan fall on this scale, as well as other quail species.

    • The article says that Chukar was #6 and California (valley) Quail #9. But I agree – Blue (Dusky/Sooty) Grouse should be ranked fairly high. Combined ptarmigan and other assorted quail, (mountain, Gambel’s, scaled, Mearn’s) are probably pretty low, since they are regional specialties.

  • Grouse would 1-4 for me, prairie chicken, sharptail, ruffed and blue grouse. Scaled quail would round out the top 5.

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