Our Ring-necked Pheasant

by: Barry Sabean
FALL 1990

The ring-necked pheasant found in North America has been described as a mongrel strain, molded by the harsh but efficient process of natural selection. This bird is a curious mixture of Chinese, Korean and Manchurian ring-necks, with a touch of Japanese green and the Caucasian blackneck. They are predominantly Chinese but their cosmopolitan blood lines have resulted in birds which have adapted well to the rigors of life in agricultural areas of this continent.

The original North American introduction took place around 1733 when several dozen blacknecks were introduced to Governor's Island in New York harbour. this and several later attempts along the East coast were unsuccessful. but in 1881 a release of 21 Chinese ring-necked pheasants in the Williamette Valley of Oregon took hold. A host of introductions of several varieties followed throughout the United States and Canada wherever there was a ghost of a chance of their survival. By the early 1900s pheasants were well established throughout many of the mid-western and northeastern states as well as in the southern part of Canada's prairie region.

In Nova Scotia the first attempt to introduce pheasants was made around 1856. A number of attempts followed but it was not until 1935 that ring-necks became established. During that year the Kings County Fish and Game Association obtained about 1,000 eggs. They sought the help of local farmers, who placed them under domestic setting hens. The Association obtained only 85 birds from the eggs, but there were liberated. From this and subsequent releases the population became established.

Numbers increased slowly, and in 1943 the first pheasant hunting season was established in Kings County. It was from October 25-31 with a bag limit of three cocks. A series of closures and openings followed. By 1948 a season was in place for Annapolis, Kings, Digby, Hants and Queens counties, and an open season has been in place in all subsequent years.

The population was centered in the Annapolis Valley, and the peak occurred from 1950 to 1955, when hunter harvest ranged between 3,000 and 4,500 cocks. typically, this high population was followed by a dramatic decline.

In an effort to reverse the decline, the government undertook intensive stocking of game farm bird. During 1959 and 1960 over 10,000 birds were stocked throughout the province, with over 5,500 liberated in the Valley alone. In other years lower numbers were released, but the stocking effort failed and the population continued to decline. The small game biologist of the day concluded that these large numbers of game farm birds may have displaced wild birds and thus actually reduced overall production. His studies suggested that the stocked birds contributed little to breeding success.

In the early 60s stocking was virtually discontinued. Pheasants reached a low in 1964, when the Valley harvest was only 649 birds. Despite the lack of stocking (or perhaps because of it) the population began to recover, reaching a high level in the mid-1970s. Although considerable annual variation exists, this healthy population remains relatively high to the present day. Individuals and groups still undertake stocking, but these efforts are unlikely to contribute significantly to our established wild base.

The present wild population is centered in the eastern Annapolis valley, but reasonable numbers exist throughout the rest of the valley as well as along the coastal areas of Digby, Yarmouth and Lunenburg counties. Smaller numbers exist in the agricultural areas of Hants, Halifax, Colchester, Cumberland and Pictou counties. Isolated pockets of pheasants in other areas of the province are usually a product of continual releases of small numbers of birds by local clubs or individuals.

Male pheasants are one of th most conspicuous members of Nova Scotia's bird community. Weighing about three pounds (1.3 kg) and sporting a tail which may be over 18 inches (45 cm) long, the cock ring-neck can only be described as gaudy. The head and upper neck are covered largely in feathers shot through with iridescent blues, blacks and greens, while the crown is metallic green with short black ear tufts. The bare face patches or wattles are a vivid crimson. below its white neck ring are copper breast feathers with violet iridescence and black tips. The back is marked in a beautiful and complex pattern of rusts, blacks and creams merging into a saddle with delicate hues of bluish-green. A truly colorful bird!

The female by contrast is smaller, with a shorter tail and a drab mixture of browns and greys with buffy underparts. She is well camouflaged and superbly adapted to the task of being inconspicuous while incubating eggs.

Breeding activity begins in April, with cocks setting up territories which they loudly proclaim. Standing erect, they crow lustily while rapidly beating their wings to produce a fluttering, booming sound. The crowing is a strident "cuh-aw-w-w-cawk" that sounds like a rusty gate hinge and can be heard for a mile (1.6 km) on a still morning. Beginning at daybreak each cock announces his territory. During the peak of the breeding season they crow every two minutes, with the frequency dropping off as the sun rises.

Territories are vigorously defended and fighting is frequent and often prolonged. Battling cocks are often so intent on their task that they can be closely approached; fights on the road may hold up traffic until the outcome is decided.

Each cock attempts to attract as many females to his harem as he can, and it isn't unusual for a wild cock to have six or eight mates. In the courtship ritual the male's colorful plumage is fully utilized. Approaching a hen, he spreads and lowers one wing while spreading his tail and fluffing his feathers in her direction. With his ear tufts erect, wattles a brilliant scarlet and head held low, he struts before the hen with an exaggerated bobbing motion. Always careful to keep the hen on the side he is displaying, he attempts to impress her with the size and brilliance of his plumage. Cocks who have lost their tails to accidents are at a severe disadvantage in these displays. In one study, it was observed that over half of the full-tailed cocks had hens with them but only 7% of cocks with no tails had hens.

Hens seek a grassy area in which to construct a simple nest of dry grass. Usual locations include hayfields, apple orchards, marsh edges, roadside ditches or weedy fence rows. They prefer relatively open areas with good ground cover.

In Nova Scotia the average date for nest initiation is May 1 and the average clutch size is 13, with nine to 15 being the most common. One egg per day is laid and once the clutch is complete, incubation begins and lasts for about 23 days. The female has sole responsibility for incubation of eggs and care of chicks.

Relying heavily on their drab plumage to keep them invisible, incubating hens are normally reluctant to leave the nest even if closely approached. It is not unusual for a hen to be killed by a mowing machine as she relies on her camouflage to protect her from this noisy "predator". Eggs may also be lost to skunks, raccoons, foxes or the weather. Prolonged cold, wet weather may saturate nests to the point where the female cannot provide enough heat and the embryos will die. Females who lose their first clutch during egg laying or incubation will normally make a second attempt. In years with a cold, wet spring it may be these second nests which make up the bulk of production.

Eggs which survive to hatch produce young which are well developed and ready to leave the nest to feed on their own as soon as they are dry. To develop properly the chicks require an abundance of protein-rich insects such as grasshoppers and ants. The hen provides warmth during cold or wet weather and is constantly on the look-out for predators. When threatened the chicks normally "freeze", while the female uses the old broken-wing ruse to lure enemies away.

Prolonged cold, wet weather can decimate these young birds and in some years may severely reduce production. Predators such as raccoons, foxes and house cats may also take their toll; but if habitat and weather are favorable, predation losses are unlikely to have much impact.

Under good conditions the young strengthen quickly, and by two weeks of age are able to fly fairly well, although they are only a quarter the size of the hen. by three months of age the broods begin to break up and the young have to fend for themselves. Young cocks first start to develop their post-juvenile colored feathers at about two months. by five months their plumage is nearly identical to that of adult birds.

Although adult pheasants rely on seeds as a staple diet, they are also fond of many different types of fruit. In the spring and summer they may be tempted by insects and the succulent green growth of a variety of plants. They seem to be particularly fond of the young spinach in my garden and follow this up by a quick trip to the strawberry patch. Food becomes much scarcer in the winter, and this is when pheasants rely most on seeds, particularly those of grain and weeds. Unlike our native ruffed grouse, pheasants don't normally eat buds, and are therefore much more susceptible to periods of heavy snow when their food may be covered.

When stressed by lack of food, pheasants readily approach human habitations where they feed on manure piles or seeds placed there by sympathetic people. Feeding pheasants is extremely popular among bird fanciers and those with substantial numbers soon learn that the economic and nutritious alternatives include "chicken scratch" and corn. During periods of deep snow, grit should also be provided in the form of small pebbles or a commercial alternative such as that sold for chickens. Like all birds, pheasants lack teeth and must break up seeds in their muscular gizzard using small stones for grinding.

Roosting cover is another important habitat requirement for pheasants. These birds are not active at night and seek out dense stands of vegetation to provide shelter from the weather and predators. they normally roost on the ground in cattails, high grass or low shrubs and they may also spend the night in trees, particularly when cold and wind are not a problem.

Pheasants are best adapted to agricultural areas, and in North America reach their highest concentrations in the wide-open, grain-growing prairies. In Nova Scotia they are most abundant in the eastern Annapolis Valley where substantial acreage is in grain. But they also do fairly well in areas where agriculture is less intensive. For instance, our western coastal areas, which offer light snow cover, hayfields, small gardens and plenty of fairly open habitat with wild rose and other fruiting and seed-bearing plants, also provide adequate habitat.

Ring-necked pheasants were originally introduced to provide another game bird and they have thrived in this role. The male's ability to breed with several hens leaves surplus cocks available to hunt, with no danger to the population. The extreme color differences between the sexes makes it relatively easy for hunters to tell them apart and, in most jurisdictions a cock-only harvest is the norm.

In Nova Scotia we keep track of the health of the pheasant populations by using spring cock-crowing counts, winter sex ratios and hunter harvest. If we continue to provide a reasonable amount of good habitat for them, they should remain a valued member of our bird community for all future generations of Nova Scotians.