Pheasants turn Detroit's formerly blighted open spaces into natural habitat

Most would see Detroit's blight problem as a negative - pheasants are finding the silver lining.

While Detroit continues to clear blight around the city, open spaces are being created - and for these birds, a home.

Diane Cheklich of the Detroit Audubon Society talked with Uniquely Detroit's Alex Atwell during a recent Pheasant Walk in the city.

What is going on today?

Today was her first ever pheasant walk in the city of Detroit. We want to recognize and celebrate the pheasant population right here in the heart of the city.

Why is it important to do that?

It's important because of two reasons. First of all, people need access to nature and in the middle of a big city nature is not always that available to us. Here in Detroit, with all the open space that we have, there are habitats that have sprung up. That represents nature and there are some creatures living in those habitats including pheasants.

What do pheasants mean to you?

It seems like everyone in Detroit has a story. There is a certain amount of pheasant lore in the city. There are murals, there's art around, there's urban farms named after pheasants and there is a pheasant population here which is not something that every big city can say. Pheasants are a type of grassland bird in decline throughout the country, mostly because of habitat destruction. So one of the things were trying to do is raise awareness about habitat in Detroit and things people can do to not only enjoy and celebrate it, but also protect it.

What was it like seeing people out here walking around enjoying nature in Detroit?

We had a great response!  We had over 50 people sign up and we did see some birds today, which is great. You cant always guarantee to see them because they are skittish birds.

What specifically do we have here that pheasants like?

Pheasants are grassland birds. So you see here a lot of tall grass and kind of scrubby areas. They like the forage in these areas and they also like to hide in there, and it provides shelter for them.

In Detroit we have some blight problems and open areas. Talk about how that has turned into a positive....at least for the pheasants.

Detroit has a lot of open space and some of that is turning into natural areas. Some people would look at it and say,  that's blight. We look at it and say, that's habitat. There are things living there and pheasants are a great example. They are beautiful birds, they are real visible birds and it's easy to understand that it's habitat when you see those birds and other creatures in the area.

What role should the city take in dealing with our open space in the future?

I think the city of Detroit has an opportunity with all the open space and all the planning that's going on to recognize and celebrate the nature that's available to us here. We're hoping that there are some initiatives put in place that protects the habitat. There's a fair amount of dumping and blight, that's true, but we would like to have some cleaned up and made as intentional habitat. Beautify and put signage and things like that where it can be an ecotourism attraction for residents and visitors.

What's the pheasant connection with DETROIT? Why is it important?

I like to think that pheasants are the unofficial city bird of Detroit. There is a population here. A lot of people have personal stories and it just seems to be a thing in this town. Let's celebrate them. Let's have some fun and celebrate the pheasants.

As spring moves in, nesting season is colliding with mowing season. Cheklich argues that the city doesn't need to mow these open spaces.


- For people who want to participate in future pheasant walks or volunteer for our habitat projects: www.detroitaudubon.orghttp://www.facebook.com/DetroitAudubon

- The next pheasant walk is Saturday, May 20 at 8:00 a.m.. Mark your calendars!

Here's some more tidbits from the Audubon Society:


- Detroit sits at the intersection of two of the four major migratory bird flyways in the U.S., the Mississippi Flyway and the Atlantic Flyway. Spring migration is now underway!

- The Detroit area is home to four “Important Bird Areas,” (a designation indicating high conservation value for bird habitat), one of which is globally recognized.

- The Detroit River offers an outstanding wintering site for waterfowl, including large quantities of Canvasback ducks (over 10% of the global population has been observed wintering on the Detroit River). Here’s a link to more info about the Detroit River IBA: http://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas/detroit-river

- The Lower Detroit River is one of the top three locations in the nation for viewing raptor migration .


- Pheasants are grassland birds, and they make their nests on the ground during the period of mid-April to late July. It’s best not to mow during this period so nests and baby birds can be protected.


- Uniquely Detroit: We are not aware of any other major city that has a pheasant population walking around inside the city limits. People had fun on our inaugural pheasant walk, and it’s a great way for people to appreciate and celebrate the natural areas/habitat that are in the City of Detroit.

- Grassland habitat across the country is in serious decline, with less than 1% being protected. Detroit used to be entirely grassland, but it has since disappeared due to farming and then development. As a result of the habitat destruction, grassland birds are struggling to survive. Grassland species like the meadowlark and bobolink are in pretty serious trouble, so habitat conservation efforts are more important than ever.

- Detroit Audubon is involved in habitat conservation efforts within Detroit. Last year we worked with Urban Neighborhood Initiatives in SW Detroit to convert a vacant lot/dumping ground to a bird habitat, and community members in the area are becoming more interested in birding. Currently we’re in the early stages of working with the City of Detroit to create some intentional meadows that can provide habitat for birds and access to nature for nearby residents. We hope to eventually create a corridor of habitat that birds can follow when moving through the city.

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