History of the Exotic Ring-Necked Pheasant of the Prairie
The pheasant has a very interesting history in this country. Usually, exotic species cause ecological chaos and are treated with contempt once introduced to a different area. 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. Of course, this game bird has been introduced to Europe and New Zealand as well, so it’s not all that uniquely American. Yet it has thrived in our prairies and farmlands to the point where our wildlife agencies manage their populations like they do with 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. They then beat their wings to attract the attention of a hen. The crowing sound can be heard from over a mile away! The male will strut around the female, dipping his wings and tilting his tail feathers toward her. His red face wattles swell for a more dramatic look.
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 mostly include foxes, raccoons, and skunks. Hens may lay eggs in other hens’ nests or even that of the greater prairie chicken. This practice, which is called nest parasitism, has caused a population decline for the prairie chicken. Once hatched, precocial chicks follow the hen right away, feed independently, and are flying 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. These are very nutritious and full of protein. Towards fall, they switch to eating seeds, grain, and berries. Throughout the winter, they 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. And besides the hottest and most humid southeastern states, the pheasant is now present in almost every state and throughout Canada. 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. These birds thrive from agricultural fields, pastures, and hayfields to riparian areas, ditches/sloughs, and cattail wetlands. 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 harvest, the available cover in agricultural areas for pheasants 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 are taken out of the program, winter habitat and bird populations drop with them.
Hunting Opportunities for the Ring-necked Pheasant
The ring-necked pheasant can be hunted across most of its range. The best places for hunting, though? North and South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas. 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. Law usually requires pheasant habitat stamps 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. 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 at your side will really shift 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 picking agricultural fields, pheasants will often run along field edges, fence rows, hedgerows, or tuck into grassy roadside sloughs. From this cover, they can easily forage on waste grain and quickly retreat again. When bitter winds and snowy weather appear, focus on the cattails and conifer shelterbelts to find 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, pheasant hunting still has plenty to offer. 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: January 8, 2018