History of the Exotic Ring-Necked Pheasant of the Prairie
The pheasant has a very interesting history in this country. Usually, exotic species that are introduced to a different area cause ecological chaos and are treated with contempt. Huge efforts are undertaken to remove them as efficiently as possible. But that’s not the case with the ring-necked pheasant.
Though it is an exotic species introduced from Asia in the 1800s, there’s something so distinctly American about pheasant hunting, isn’t there? Many people don’t even realize they are exotic at all. Realistically, this game bird has been introduced to Europe and New Zealand as well, so there’s nothing all that uniquely American about it. Yet it has thrived in our prairies and farmlands to the point where our wildlife agencies manage their populations as any other native game bird.
Description and Life History of the Ring-necked Pheasant
The ring-necked pheasant is about the size of a chicken, weighing about two to four pounds on average. The roosters are almost always larger than the hens, and look very different too. Hens have mottled tan and brown feathers with a paler-colored head. The roosters, however, are spectacularly adorned with iridescent feathers. A bright white ring of feathers around their neck (hence the name) separates the deep green-colored head from their body’s copper brown feathers. They have scarlet red wattles covering most of their face, and small green feather tufts that resemble ears. Males have spurs on their legs, which are sometimes used in territorial disputes. The base of their tail spreads out in a large V-shape, tapering towards the rear. And they have very long tail feathers (reaching 20 inches or more) that have black bars and are used in courtship displays.
Roosters perform a courtship dance by first perching somewhere to crow and beat their wings to attract the attention of a hen. The crowing sound can be heard from over a mile away! Then he will strut around her, dipping his wings and tilting his tail feathers toward her. His red face wattles will get swollen for a more dramatic look too. After breeding, hens will scratch out a shallow nest in fields, pastures, or brushy field edges, and line it with grass and leaves. They will typically lay 10 to 12 tan or olive-colored eggs, on average. Nest predators include foxes, raccoons, and skunks mostly. Hens may lay eggs in other hens’ nests or even that of the greater prairie chicken (called nest parasitism), which has caused a population decline for the prairie chicken over time. Once they hatch, the precocial chicks follow the hen right away, can feed themselves independently, and can fly within two weeks.
Ring-necked pheasants usually use their feet to scratch food from the ground. In most agricultural areas, they survive off eating waste corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, and oats. But they also eat seeds from other native and weed species, including ragweed, burdock, etc. In spring, their diet (especially for chicks) consists of green vegetation and insects, which are very nutritious and full of protein. Towards fall, they switch to eating seeds, grain, and berries. Throughout the winter, they will eat buds, pine seeds, and scratch through the snow to find additional waste grain. Predators of adult birds include humans, foxes, coyotes, owls, and hawks.
Range and Habitat of the Ring-necked Pheasant
As mentioned above, the ring-necked pheasant was introduced to this country back in the 1800s. It is now established in almost every state and throughout Canada, except our hottest and most humid southeast states. Being a grassland-dependent species, the humid swamps of our southeast don’t offer much habitat for them. But the prairie states and farm belt are loaded with pheasants for that reason.
Pheasants are a bird built for the open country. From agricultural fields, pastures, and hayfields to riparian areas, ditches/sloughs, and cattail wetlands, these birds thrive. Corn and soybean fields offer great protection from predators and ample food for pheasants during the growing season. In addition, these areas are open enough for chicks and adults to easily navigate through. Weed species and insects along the field edges also offer lots of concealment and foraging opportunities. After crops have been harvested in the fall, the available cover for pheasants in agricultural areas drops dramatically. They will then transition to using wetlands, conifer and shrub hedgerows, and grassy sloughs to hide from predators (including us) and seek thermal cover.
Conservation Issues of the Ring-necked Pheasant
As with most exotic species on foreign soil, the pheasant thrives very well in our country. Consequently, there are very few conservation concerns for them. However, there are a few factors that can impact the population from year to year. Cold spring weather and untimely rains can affect nest success and chick survival. Bitter cold winters can also be a major source of mortality for adult pheasants, particularly if the food and habitat are insufficient. In fact, habitat loss is probably the biggest concern for the pheasant population in the long run.
In many agricultural areas, pheasants require winter cover in the form of grasslands, brushy stream buffers, and other unfarmed areas. Typically, properties enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) offer this kind of habitat. When too many fields get taken out of CRP to be planted with agricultural crops again, there is a major lack of winter habitat and the pheasant population (along with many other native species) can plunge.
Hunting Opportunities for the Ring-necked Pheasant
The ring-necked pheasant can be hunted across most of its range, although North and South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas usually offer the best pheasant hunting opportunities. While private lands have their advantages, public land pheasant hunting can be phenomenal in these states. The hunting seasons mostly start in October and run through January, although each state has different regulations. Pheasant habitat stamps are usually required in addition to a hunting license. Daily bag limits range from two to four birds in the hot states mentioned above. Some states also have regulations on the use of lead or steel shot, so know the regulations before you show up to hunt.
If you plan on covering some heavily hunted areas or can only hunt educated birds in the late season, having a good canine on your side will really tilt the balance in your favor. There are many great breeds that will work for pheasant hunting, several of which are featured in the Gun Dog Confidential. A good bird dog can make a big difference.
After agricultural fields have been picked, you’ll often find pheasants running along field edges, fence rows, hedgerows, or tucked into grassy roadside sloughs. From this cover, they can easily forage on waste grain and quickly retreat again. When bitter winds and snowy weather appears, focus on the cattails and conifer shelterbelts to find the birds. If you can target them right at first light (depending on regulations) or within the last 45 minutes of daylight, you’ll be more likely to catch them in these roost areas. While they prefer to run from danger if possible, they will fly when flushed by a predator or human at close range. Be forewarned: they can reach speeds of 60 miles per hour pretty quickly, so you’d better get a good lead on them!
While purists may turn their noses up at chasing a non-native bird when they could focus on our native prairie chicken, grouse species, or woodcock, there’s still something to be said about pheasant hunting. The beautiful open country, sunrises and sunsets, and thrilling flush and cackle of a pheasant all just get in your blood.
Pheasants Forever. 2017. Pheasant Facts. Accessed at: https://www.pheasantsforever.org/Habitat/Pheasant-Facts.aspx
Natureserve. 2017. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at http://explorer.natureserve.org
National Audubon Society. 2017. Guide to North American Birds. Accessed at: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/ring-necked-pheasant
Last modified: September 19, 2017