Perhaps nowhere in nature is the splendor of Mother Nature more vivid than in the colors of a cock ringneck pheasant. A body of bronze, yellow and orange feathers with black markings contrasts against a rump of bright blues and greens, long tail feathers and wings of silver and brown-all offset by an iridescent green-and-purple head with red wattles and, of course, a telltale white ring around the neck. Whether drawn to this bird's magnificent plumage or its appeal as a prized game dish, it is no wonder it is widely considered America's most popular gamebird.
Pheasants first appeared in Asia and Asia Minor 3,000 years ago. They evolved into multiple subspecies, serving as ancestors of other long-tailed species, such as the chicken and peacock. Today there are more than 30 subspecies and color forms of common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), with ringneck being the collective term used to identify those (and their crossbreeds) clearly distinguished by the white ring around their necks.
Pheasants flourished in Asia and parts of Europe for centuries before being successfully introduced to America in the 1800s. Attempts were made to import farm-raised English blackneck pheasants in the 1700s, including an attempt by President George Washington at his Mount Vernon estate, but it was not until 1881 when Judge Owen Denny, the American consul to Shanghai, China, shipped more than 50 of the exotic ringneck subspecies to his Oregon home that pheasants took hold.
Subsequent releases in Oregon and South Dakota in the 1880s led to populations across North America, with birds ranging from southern Canada to Texas. Similar to bobwhite quail, populations vary by region and season. Numbers increased in the 1950s and 1960s when land-use practices were ideal, with many areas reporting 400 birds per square mile. In recent years, changing or shrinking habitat has caused populations to decline in some areas, leading state wildlife agencies such as those in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to implement pheasant restoration programs. Wild ringnecks inhabit a 2-mile radius in open country near water and scattered trees. Primarily farmland birds, they thrive in standing crops, brushy ditches and hedgerows.
A mature male, or rooster, is 30 to 36 inches in length, 20 inches of which may be its barred tail. Average weight is 3 pounds in contrast to the hen, which averages 25 inches, weighs 2 pounds and features mottled brown plumage and a shorter tail to stay camouflaged while nesting. Seasonal breeders, roosters begin their courtship rituals toward the end of March, beating their wings, strutting and crowing with neck feathers swelled. Adult males have half-inch sharp, black spurs used to establish dominance and defend territory as opposed to the short, blunt spurs of young birds.
A rooster breeds 10 to 12 hens, called a harem; the birds nest on the ground. A hen sheds its breast feathers, exposing a bare patch of skin, referred to as a brood patch, to help keep eggs warm. It lays one egg per day, producing a clutch of eight to 15 between April and June, which hatch in 23 days. If the nest is destroyed, it will re-nest up to four times. Newly hatched pheasants are covered in down and immediately start to feed. Males begin to grow ornate feathers at 10 weeks.
Pheasants take dust baths to remove parasites from feathers and stay cool on hot days. In late season, they inhabit corn stubbles and other areas that provide shelter from wind, snow and predators. At this point they become gregarious, with flocks of 30 to 40 converging on feeding and roosting areas. In severe weather, they may stay roosted for several days. Their bodies store a layer of yellow fat that they burn and release as heat.
A pheasant's down feathers grow close to the body to trap heat while contour feathers provide body shape. Wing and tail feathers are sturdy to support its weight and withstand air pressure during flight. The tail's main function is to steer when flying. The cock pheasant's elongated tail feathers are ornamental, and cover up the true tail feathers that help it to steer.
The Midwest and Western grasslands are classic pheasant country. The ringneck is the state bird of South Dakota-dubbed the pheasant hunting capital of the world, based on sheer numbers with nearly 8.5 million birds. Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota are also prime hunting destinations. Out west, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California are the top five states. Wild pheasants do not reproduce well south of the Mason-Dixon Line so most hunting in the Southeast is restricted to preserves, with birds commercially farmed for this purpose.
The pheasant is the most ancient and widespread gamebird worldwide, and one of the most challenging to hunt. Hunters readily admit their No. 1 strategy in pinning down a sly rooster in thick cover often lies in the scenting ability of a four-legged companion.