The genetic basis of population colonization is poorly understood, particularly in animals. Here, I introduce the idea of a ‘catapult effect’ to explain how the effects of transient increases in fitness can be retained in population demography diminishing the chance of extinction. I tested this idea using information on historical introductions of hybrid and non-hybrid pheasants in the United States. I found that hybrid pheasants were 2.2 times more likely to establish than non-hybrid strains. Analysis of fitness components failed to support the alternative that the increased odds of establishment resulted from increased genetic variation conferring permanent fitness benefits through directional selection or by purging deleterious alleles. These results show that even ephemeral increases in fitness can affect the persistence of small populations.