Pheasants are members of the Phasianidae family (Phasianus colochicus), which includes peafowl, peacocks and peahens.
The males of this common pheasant are large and gaudy in color. They have long tails and a coppery color with a hint of green, white spots, green heads, small “ear” tufts, and a red patch around the eyes. A white ring around the neck gives them their common name. The females are slightly smaller, brown with black markings, have a lighter colored breast and short tails. Both birds are prolific fliers and can run along the ground at a good pace when frightened. They have strong, stubby wings for rapid flight and longish legs for running.
Pheasant habitat was hedgerows and thick cover between farm fields where they roosted, raised their young and had access to farm fields for feeding on insects and mostly fallen grain after harvest in the fall.
What happened to our pheasants?
Ring-necked pheasants were introduced worldwide, primarily in Europe and North America, as game birds from China in the late 1800s. They are the state bird of South Dakota, whose grasslands provided prime habitat. Common to Frederick County in the 1960s and 1970s, it was not unusual to see large flocks of them foraging in farm fields around Frederick in the fall after the crops were harvested.
Pheasants are ground-nesting birds, using scrapes lined with grasses or leaves to brood their young. The young have a low survival rate with over a third of the chicks lost during the first few weeks of their lives. In the wild, a pheasant can normally live up to three years.
They typically live in dense cover, such as medium grasslands, hedgerows, heavy brush and other cover, protecting them from predators such as foxes, coyotes and birds of prey. Pheasants feed on seeds, grain, small plant roots and berries. In the appropriate seasons, they feed on green shoots, small insects, worms and snails.
Pheasants are still prized by upland game hunters, and are a very tasty game bird. Hunting season and bag limits were well regulated to allow for their proliferation and survival. Hunting was not the issue in the reduction of the pheasant population. They were a sustainable sport and food resource in the past.
Initially, farming was much different in rural areas, even where it survives today. Farms were small with usually less than 20 acres, and had fairly wide buffers between fields in the form of hedgerows, which was ideal pheasant cover. No-till and other techniques in current use, such as the application of herbicides to eliminate crop-competing plants, as well as a variety of insecticides, are not conducive to healthy habitat for pheasants. Reducing hedgerows and border areas to thin strips makes for killing zones for predators.
An occasional pheasant can still be seen around the county, but these sightings are now few and far between. There are several sportsmen’s organizations dedicated to the continued preservation of these magnificent birds. Through proper management techniques by landowners, it may be possible to bring back pheasants, and obtain a success like that achieved with wild turkeys.