All month long, I’m focusing on featured birds that highlight the best of autumn. Yet there is so much about the season to highlight, it can be hard to choose! For many people, the rich, jewel-tone colors of changing foliage are a key part of the season. For others, harvest foods and savory flavors truly make autumn all it is meant to be. For still others, fall means hunting season, whether that means hunting with a camera, binoculars, bow or rifle. Fortunately, this week’s featured bird can be all of these facets of fall.
Name: Ring-Necked Pheasant, Common Pheasant
Scientific Name: Phasianus colchicus
Scientific Family: Phasianidae (Pheasants, Partridges, Turkeys and Grouse)
Habitat: Found in brushy, overgrown fields, including agricultural areas, meadows, prairies and forest edges, as well as alongside roads in rural areas. Longer grasses and scattered shrubbery are preferred because of the cover they provide for these shy, skittish birds. Because these birds may be kept in exotic collections or as part of game reserves, they may occasionally be found in unexpected areas, including parks, gardens or suburban regions.
Range: A year-round resident of suitable habitats from south-central Canada through the western United States as far south as central California, northern Arizona, central New Mexico and northern Texas. The ring-necked pheasant’s range extends east to New England and Nova Scotia, though they are absent from the northernmost regions of Minnesota and the Great Lakes area. What many birders don’t realize, however, is that these birds are not native to North America – they originated in similar habitats in Asia, the Middle East and eastern Europe, and have been introduced to western Europe and North America, where they now thrive.
Ring-necked pheasants are distinctive, chicken-like birds with their long, slender tails, round bodies, long necks and small heads. Their colors are all the tones of autumn, with the males having coppery plumage with black scaling below and white dots above. The brown tail is barred with black, and the rump is golden-brown. A broad white necklace encircles the neck and contrasts with the deep green head, bright red face and golden-white crown, as well as the amber eyes and ivory bill. The breast is a deep chestnut hue, darker than the coppery wings. Females are less brilliantly colored and more mottled brown, tan, buff and black to serve as exceptional camouflage.
Despite their bold plumage, these birds can be difficult to see as they skulk in faded fields, staying behind clumps of dried grasses and keeping a low profile to avoid predators. Of course, during the spring breeding season, males want to stand out as much as possible, and I’ve had the dubious privilege of having a male ring-necked pheasant outside my office window for hours at a time one year, standing atop a boulder and making incessant, loud, obnoxious calls roughly once a minute. I wasn’t particularly impressed with his courtship display – though he did show amazing stamina – nor am I certain any females fell for his charms, but he did settle down after darkness (thank goodness, or we might have had to have words).
In addition to their coloration, these birds also epitomize fall with their status as a game bird. As a group, pheasants are some of the most hunted game birds worldwide, and different types of pheasants are often hunted in different regions – which can bring them to different tables and menus as a savory fall treat. While I don’t hunt personally, I recognize, acknowledge and support the vital part organized, regulated hunting can play in thoughtful bird conservation. Controlled hunting can monitor overall populations as well as help control overpopulation and augment wild populations with captive-raised birds released on game reserves. The smartest and strongest will survive to help bolster the population after the hunting season ends, ensuring there are more ring-necked pheasants for us all to see and enjoy every autumn.