Every few years a Ring-necked Pheasant appears at the bird feeders in winter. I’ve seen four or five in 28 years. I know of no wild birds in the area and assume that the occasional visitor is the result of artificially reared birds being released by a private individual. Regardless of origin or status, the male or cock bird must be admired for its beauty.
A native of Asia, the pheasant was introduced into the U.S. well over a hundred years ago, mainly due to its popularity as a game bird. After WWII game farms sprung up across the northern states and parts of southern Canada to artificially propagate birds for release into the wild. These wide-scale stockings resulted in “wild” populations (established, breeding populations) where the habitat was suitable. Subsequently, the Ring-necked Pheasant became one of the few introductions of a nonnative species to be judged both desirable and successful. In New York State, wild populations occur, mainly in the Lake Plains of the western part of the state. Elsewhere, in marginal habitats, sightings are generally stocked birds that will not persist as breeding populations. Heavy snow, ice and predation take their toll.
Pheasants, like grouse, turkeys, quail and chickens, are gallinaceous birds. They’re stocky, with relatively short wings and a stout bill. These are adaptations for foraging on the ground and escaping with rapid bursts of speed over short distances (for many, this may include running as well as flying). A crop (thin, pouch-like organ at the base of the throat) enables this type of bird to consume a lot of food quickly, storing it for breakdown and digestion later, while in the safety of cover.
This bird is using its heavy beak to scrape away leaf litter and ground cover to find corn.
Due to their popularity, pheasants are managed intensively, especially on primary range. Their survival is closely tied to the “human-made plains” habitats associated with agricultural practices. Grain fields; fallow, protected fields dominated by grasses; and thick, brushy areas near food sources are all critical habitats at various times of the year. The thick cover needed in winter is often found in lowland swamps or along the edges of cattail marshes. I have also observed large wintering flocks along the thick borders of abandoned railroad beds.
.All photos by NB Hunter