Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colhicus) is a familiar sight in
rural north central and northwest Oklahoma. Although not
indigenous to the United States, this Asian native was
successfully introduced in 1857. Now pheasants are found from
New England to California, and are well established as a popular
game species in many states, including the Sooner State.
Both sexes have stout, yellowish beaks and short, rounded wings – but few other similarities. The showy males, called cocks or roosters, may be quickly distinguished by their handsome, glossy plumage and long, pointed tails that may be more than 20 inches in length. The head and neck are iridescent blue-green or purple, separated from the rest of the body by the conspicuous white collar from which the species gets its name. Males, which may weigh more than 2-1/2 pounds, are further characterized by bright red patches of bare skin on the cheeks, which form wattles below the eyes. Feathers along the sides of head are long and form an erectile double crest that resembles ears or horns. Finally, males are noted for the multiple hues and patterns on their body and wing feathers, and the spurs on the backs of their bare legs.
Females called hens, while still beautiful by other standard, and are drab compared to their mates. Their coloration is a simple combination of light and dark browns, with a shorter tail and no head crest. Hens weigh approximately two pounds.
Pheasants prefer cultivated farmland habitat mixed with weedy fencerows, ditches and corners. Although they are swift runners and prefer to travel overland, when flushed these birds generally fly toward timber of thick brush for escape cover. However, pheasants are commonly seen out in wide-open fields where they feed on waste grains and weed seeds. Insects, especially grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars, compose the remainder of their diet.
Beginning in early spring, cocks begin courtship by strutting for females. The ear tufts are raised and the bare skin on the heads becomes engorged and brilliant red. Males establish crowing territories with a bantam-like “knock-ack”! followed by a loud clapping of wings. Males often fight each other – with fights lasting until one runs away or is completely exhausted and beaten. The dominant male will have earned the right to breed with the on looking female, and during the breeding season may mate with two, three, four or more hens.
Hens usually establish nest sites within the male’s crowing territory, which may cover a few acres. Nests are located in cover, on ground in a shallow depression lined with bits of grass and weeds. Ten to 12 dark green-buff or rich brown-olive eggs are laid and incubated by the female (cocks occasionally incubate eggs too). Sometimes larger clutches may be seen, which are usually the result of two hens using the same nest. Pheasants also will lay in the nests of ducks, quail, turkeys, domestic chickens and other birds.
After 23-25 days of incubation chicks are hatched and are able to walk and run almost immediately. The young develop quickly and are able to fly short distances at only seven days of age. They remain with the female, and occasionally with the adult pair, for several weeks. Hens use the “cripple bird” act to lure predators away from the young. When danger has passed, one or both parents gather the brood and resume helping them find food and sheltering them from the cold or wet weather.
The average life span for ring necks is remarkably short. Many young do not live beyond October 1, and the average adult male live only 10 months. Females live about 20 months. The maximum age, estimated from a single bird kept in a zoo, is about six years.
Several myths surround the ring-necked pheasant. An old belief that these birds feed heavily on quail chicks is completely unfounded.
And there are many explanations of why pheasant introductions have never taken in eastern central and southern Oklahoma. Chiggers, mites, weather patterns, agricultural practices and soil chemistry have all been suspected but as yet there is no biological evidence to support any of these claims.