You probably haven’t had these birds at your feeders, but you might have seen some ring-necked pheasants as you whiz by them in your car. This is a good time of year, while driving on country roads or even along the freeway to spot these flamboyant (male) game birds. Last week I saw two beautiful roosters on the shoulder of the road. As the car went past the birds scooted down into the ditch. Their posture denoted a bit of arrogance – head held high and tail cocked at a 45 degree angle. I’m sure the birds are foraging in the exposed dirt for grit to help them digest the waste grains and seeds they have managed to scavenge in the fields and brushy areas.
Ring neck pheasant are not a native to North America; in fact, they originated in the Far East, which is why they are sometimes referred to as the Chinese pheasant. They were brought to the U.S. in the mid-1800s in California, where they were released into the wild. Gradually they were introduced into other states, arriving in Minnesota in 1905, when the Department of Game and Fish released 70 pairs. Those birds did not survive, but efforts continued and by 1924, there were enough in the state to have the first official season. By 1931, hunters took one million roosters during a 10 day period. Since that time, the pheasant population has gone up and down depending on the policies of farmland management.
Pheasants thrive when they have lots of grassland and prairie on which to forage, roost and build nests. During World War II, farmers were encouraged to grow as much as possible to help the war effort. Good pheasant habitat disappeared, but with the end of the war and food surpluses, the government established the Soil Bank program and farm lands were either left fallow or planted to grasses and legumes, and the pheasant population boomed. In the 1980’s policies reversed again and with more land under the plow, pheasant numbers dropped dramatically. Up and down, up and down, yet the pheasants hung on. Finally in 1982, concerned citizens and hunters got together and created Pheasants Forever to lobby for the protection and permanent restoration of habitat so that the ring-necked pheasant would be assured of a continued existence. Their efforts, in cooperation with the DNR and other conservation groups led to some of the highest populations since the early 60’s. However, the last two years have seen a large drop in the ringneck population. In 2013 the population dropped 29 percent. This year their numbers rebounded slightly. A statewide survey showed 2.68 pheasants-per-mile, up from 1.52 in 2013.
A number of factors cause population decline, including poor nesting weather, but the greatest threat and reduction is due to loss of habitat. Minnesota alone has recently lost more than 100 square miles of grassland habitat, ideal for pheasant’s. The federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been critical in maintaining habitat for wildlife and most recently contracts have declined by 63,700 acres in Minnesota’s pheasant range. Another 400,000 acres of statewide CRP lands are scheduled to expire in the next 3 years.
Those who hunt pheasants love to walk through grasslands, edges of cattail marshes and stubble corn fields searching for these beautiful game birds. And there is hardly a more stunning bird than a rooster ring-neck, with its long, pointed tail, iridescent greenish blue head and neck, white collar and bright red patch of skin around the eyes. The body is bronze and reddish brown with detailed markings of white, brown and black on the wings and back. Females, like others of their kind are a very mottled brown – all the better to blend into the surroundings and survive the critical nesting and chick fledging time.
Winter may be losing steam, but these birds have to find a way to survive at least a couple more months scavenging leftovers, before the courtship and nesting season begins. If you live near any farmland where you know pheasants are found, you could scatter some cracked corn and you might just possibly help them survive the winter.
By Kate Crowley