Bird of the Month

Common Yellowthroat

Ring-necked Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 

General description:

The ring-necked pheasant is a chicken-sized bird. It gets its name from a prominent white ring around the male’s neck. This ring separates an iridescent green neck from a golden brown back speckled boldly with black. The chest is coppery and there are light blue patches on the rump and wings. The tail is pointed and longer than the body, with thin black striping every half inch or so. The male’s face has two large, red waddle-like patches surrounding each eye and there are feather tufts that can stand almost erect, resembling ears. It is doubtless, one of the most beautiful of birds.

The female looks nothing like the male. She is smaller and a mottled brown and gray that blends in well with the background.

Behavior and Habitat

Pheasants are ground-dwelling birds, and as any pheasant hunter knows, can run fast indeed. They also can fly very well, often exploding underfoot and launching nearly vertically into the air and reaching speeds of nearly 40 miles per hour. They seldom fly much further than 600 feet though, before coming back to ground. There is a record from 1941 though, of a pheasant flying four miles while crossing a lake, so they can fly much further if the need arises.

Pheasant feed largely on grains and forbs, but protein sources are important, especially during the summer. Worms, grasshoppers and other invertebrates are the mainstay, but I have seen males attack and kill mice and voles. During the chick raising period, abundant insects are absolutely essential for the survival of the chicks.

Similar Species

There is nothing like the male ring-necked pheasant in our country. Sage-grouse, ruffed grouse and dusky grouse may all look similar to the female pheasant.

Cool Facts

I may be on some peoples’ bad person list for choosing the ring-necked pheasant as the bird-of-the-Month as this is a non-native species. They are cool birds though and I don’t apologize for the selection.
Pheasant, specifically Ring-necked Pheasant (so named for a prominent white ring of feathers around the male’s neck), are large beautiful gamebirds. Worldwide, there are 30 subspecies of ring-necks and over 40 different pheasant species in 15 genera.

Originally from China, ring-necks got their foothold in America in 1881 when Judge O.N. Denney released 100 pairs in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. From there, the expansion of the species was truly exponential. Most states released wild pheasant for the next 50 years and populations exploded everywhere there was suitable habitat, which is largely farm country. There is little competition between ring-necked pheasant and Idaho’s native grouse as they really don’t occupy the same habitat. There are occasions when pheasants will interfere with prairie chicken nesting and breeding.

Currently, most states, except the southern states and most Canadian provinces, have populations of pheasant.

North Americans were not the first to appreciate the beauty of the pheasant. Although they have been known in China for over 3,000 years, the scientific name we use, Phasianus colchichus, came from 10th Century B.C. Greece. Greeks named the bird Phasianus ornis or phasian bird (for the Phasis River). Western Europe was introduced to the pheasant when Julius Caesar’s armies invaded during the first century, B.C.

The biology of the pheasant is similar to that of most other birds of the Order Galliformes, or chicken-like birds. Males are polygamous and practice “harem-defense polygyny”, establishing territories in the springtime by crowing, a sound that can be heard up to a mile away (biologists census pheasant populations by counting the number of early morning crows they hear on a set route). The male breeds with any willing hen that wanders into his domain and fights any rooster that does.

The female lays ten to twelve eggs in a ground nest at a rate of one per day. Once all the eggs are laid, she sets the eggs for another 23-25 days with no help from the male. The hen depends on her non-descript plumage of mottled gray, brown and white feathers to help her elude predators.

If a nest is destroyed, pheasant hens are champion re-nesters and will attempt nests until August. It is not uncommon to see hens with young broods very late in the summer.

The young pheasants are precocial, ready to follow mama soon after hatching and within two weeks are testing new wings in short flights.

When and where found at Camas NWR:

Ring-necked pheasants used to be abundant at Camas NWR. Numbers have declined from hundreds of birds to a few dozen in the past several years. This may have something to do with the reduced footprint of stable water on the Refuge but no one really knows why numbers have dropped.

During the winter months you may find them in the farmed fields or along the driving route, especially early in the morning and again just before sunset.

Threatened/Endangered Status: Least Concern
“Ring-necked Pheasants are common within their range, although their numbers have declined since a peak in the mid-twentieth century. The North American Breeding Bird Survey noted that despite increases in some areas, overall there was been a population decline of about 32% between 1966 and 2014. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at about 50 million, with about 30% of them in North America (29% in the U.S., 1% in Canada). The species scores an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Ring-necked Pheasants is not on the ?2014 State of the Birds Watch List. These pheasants are popular game birds, and in some places game managers stock pheasants on land. Hunters kill large numbers of male pheasants—sometimes several million in a single season—but the overall effect of hunting is probably not great, owing in part to the tendency for many female pheasants to mate with a single male. Auto accidents kill huge numbers of pheasants, and farm machinery also poses a threat. Contemporary farming practices have degraded most prime pheasant habitats in the U.S.—by replacing small, diversified farms with large monocultures; eliminating edge habitat; draining wetlands; burning, spraying weeds, and mowing roadsides; applying chemical fertilizers and herbicides; overgrazing; and moving up hay-mowing dates, which can destroy late nests. Management strategies include providing nesting cover, reducing nest losses, and providing adequate winter cover. The Conservation Reserve Program, funded by the Farm Bill, has helped conserve and restore habitat for Ring-necked Pheasants.”

Text by Terry Thomas
Photos by Terry Thomas