The Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), is a bird in the pheasant family (Phasianidae). It is native to Asia and has been widely introduced elsewhere as a game bird. In parts of its range, namely in places where none of its relatives occur such as in Europe (where it is naturalized), it is simply known as the "pheasant". Ring-necked Pheasant is both the name used for the species as a whole in North America and also the collective name for a number of subspecies and their intergrades which have white neck rings.
It is a well-known gamebird, among those of more than regional importance perhaps the most widespread and ancient one in the whole world. The Common Pheasant is one of the world's most hunted birds; it has been introduced for that purpose to many regions, and is also common on game farms where it is commercially bred. Ring-necked Pheasants in particular are commonly bred and were introduced to many parts of the world; the game farm stock, though no distinct breeds have been developed yet, can be considered semi-domesticated. The Ring-necked Pheasant is the state bird of South Dakota, one of only three U.S. state birds that is not a species native to the United States.
The Green Pheasant (P. versicolor) of Japan is sometimes placed as subspecies within the Common Pheasant. Though the species produce fertile hybrids wherever they coexist, this is simply a typical feature among fowl (Galloanseres), in which postzygotic isolating mechanisms are slight compared to most other birds. The species apparently have somewhat different ecological requirements and at least in its typical habitat, the Green Pheasant outcompetes the Common Pheasant. The introduction of the latter to Japan has therefore largely failed.
There are many colour forms of the male Common Pheasant, ranging in colour from nearly white to almost black in some melanistic examples. These are due to captive breeding and hybridization between subspecies and with the Green Pheasant, reinforced by continual releases of stock from varying sources to the wild. For example, the "Ring-necked Pheasants" common in Europe, North America and Australia do not pertain to any specific taxon, they rather represent a stereotyped hybrid swarm. Body weight can range from 0.5 to 3 kg (1.1 to 6.6 lb), with males averaging 1.2 kg (2.6 lb) and females averaging 0.9 kg (2.0 lb).
The adult male Common Pheasant of the nominate subspecies Phasianus colchicus colchicus is 60–89 cm (24–35 in) in length with a long brown streaked black tail, accounting for almost 50 cm (20 in) of the total length. The body plumage is barred bright gold and brown plumage with green, purple and white markings. The head is bottle green with a small crest and distinctive red wattle. P. c. colchicus and some other races lack a white neck ring.
The female (hen) is much less showy, with a duller mottled brown plumage all over and measuring 50–63 cm (20–25 in) long including a tail of around 20 cm (7.9 in). Juvenile birds have the appearance of the female with a shorter tail until young males begin to grow characteristic bright feathers on the breast, head and back at about 10 weeks after hatching.
The Green Pheasant (P. versicolor) is very similar, and hybridization often makes the identity of individual birds difficult to determine. Green Pheasant males on average have a shorter tail than the Common Pheasant and have darker plumage that is uniformly bottle-green on the breast and belly; they always lack a neck ring. Green Pheasant females are darker, with many black dots on the breast and belly.
In addition, various color mutations are commonly encountered, mainly melanistic (black) and flavistic (isabelline or fawn) specimens. The former are rather common in some areas and are named Tenebrosus Pheasant (P. colchicus var. tenebrosus).
Taxonomy and systematics
However, the bird does not occur in Africa, except perhaps in Linnaeus' time in Mediterranean coastal areas where they might have been introduced during the Roman Empire. The type locality was later fixed to the Rioni River – known as Phasis to the Ancient Greeks – where the westernmost population occurs. These birds, until the modern era, constituted the bulk of the introduced stock in Europe; the birds described by Linnaeus' sources, though typically belonging to such early introductions, would certainly have more alleles in common with the transcaucasian population than with others. The scientific name is Latin for "Pheasant from Colchis", colchicus referring to the west of modern-day Georgia; the Ancient Greek term corresponding to the English "pheasant" is Phasianos ornis (Φασιανὸς ὂρνις), "bird of the river Phasis". Although Linnaeus included many Galliformes in his genus Phasianius – such as the domestic chicken and its wild ancestor the Red Junglefowl, nowadays Gallus gallus –, today only the Common and the Green Pheasant are placed in this genus. As the latter was not known to Linnaeus in 1758, the Common Pheasant is naturally the type species of Phasianus.
In the USA, Common Pheasants are widely known as "Ring-necked Pheasants". More colloquial North American names include "chinks" or, in Montana, "phezzens". In China, meanwhile, the species is properly called zhi ji (雉鸡) – "pheasant-fowl" –, essentially implying the same as the English name "Common Pheasant". Like elsewhere, P. colchicus is such a familiar bird in China that it is usually just referred to as shan ji (山雞), "mountain chicken", a Chinese term for pheasants in general.
There are about 30 subspecies in five (sometimes six) groups. These can be identified according to the male plumage, namely presence or absence of a white neck-ring and the color of the uppertail (rump) and wing coverts. As noted above, introduced population in our time mix the alleles of various races in various amounts, differing according to the original stock used for introductions and what natural selection according to climate and habitat has made of that.
Sometimes this species is split into the Central Asian Common and the East Asian Ring-necked Pheasants, roughly separated by the arid and high mountainous regions of Turkestan. However, while the western and eastern populations probably were entirely separate during the Zyryanka glaciation when deserts were more extensive, this separation was not long enough for actual speciation to occur. Today, the largest variety of color patterns is found where the western and eastern populations mix, as is to be expected. Females usually cannot be identified even to subspecies group with certainty.
The subspecies groups, going from west to east, and some notable subspecies are:
Phasianus colchicus colchicus group – Caucasus Pheasants
Phasianus colchicus chrysomelas/principalis group – White-winged Pheasants including Prince of Wales Pheasant (P. c. principalis)
- No or vestigial neck ring. Wing coverts white, uppertail coverts and general plumage hue bronze to brown.
Phasianus colchicus mongolicus group – Mongolian Ring-necked Pheasants or White-winged Ring-necked Pheasants
NE Turkestan and adjacent Mongolia.
- Broad neck ring. Wing coverts white, uppertail coverts hue rusty to chestnut, general plumage hue copper.
Phasianus colchicus tarimensis group – Tarim Pheasants
SE Turkestan around the Tarim Basin.
Phasianus colchicus torquatus group – Chinese Ring-necked Pheasants including Taiwan Pheasant (P. c. formosanus)
Throughout China but widespread in the east, extending to northernmost Vietnam and Taiwan in the south and to the Strait of Tartary region in the north. Most pheasants in North America are of this group.
- Usually broad neck ring. Wing coverts tan to light grey (almost white in some), uppertail coverts grey to powder blue with orange tips. Top of head light grey.
Phasianus colchicus karpowi – Korean Ring-necked Pheasant
Central and southern Korean Peninsula and Jeju island in S.Korea.
Phasianus colchicus pallasi – Manchurian Ring-necked Pheasant or (Korean) Northern Ring-necked Pheasant
Northern part (alpine region) of Korean peninsula to northeastern China (Manchu).
Common Pheasants are native to Asia, their original range extending from between the Black and Caspian Seas to Manchuria, Siberia, Korea, Mainland China and Taiwan. The birds are found in woodland, farmland, scrub, and wetlands. In its natural habitat the Common Pheasant lives in grassland near water with small copses of trees. Extensively cleared farmland is marginal habitat that cannot maintain self-sustaining populations for long
Common Pheasants are gregarious birds and outside the breeding season form loose flocks. Wherever they are hunted they are always timid once they associate humans with danger, and will quickly retreat for safety after hearing the arrival of hunting parties in the area.
While Common Pheasants are able short-distance fliers, they prefer to run. If startled however, they can suddenly burst upwards at great speed, with a distinctive "whirring" wing sound and often giving kok kok kok calls to alert conspecifics. Their flight speed is only 43–61 km/h (27–38 mph) when cruising but when chased they can fly up to 90 km/h (56 mph).
Common Pheasants feed solely on the ground but roost in sheltered trees at night. They eat a wide variety of animal and vegetable type-food, like fruit, seeds and leaves as well as a wide range of invertebrates, with small vertebrates like snakes, lizards, small mammals, and birds occasionally taken.
The males are polygynous as is typical for many Phasianidae, and are often accompanied by a harem of several females. Common Pheasants nest on the ground, producing a clutch of around ten eggs over a two-three week period in April to June. The incubation period is about 23–26 days. The chicks stay near the hen for several weeks after hatching but grow quickly, resembling adults by only 15 weeks of age.
As introduced species
Common Pheasants can now be found across the globe due to their readiness to breed in captivity and the fact they can naturalise in many climates. Pheasants were hunted in their natural range by Stone Age humans just like the grouse, partridges, junglefowls and perhaps peacocks that inhabited Europe at that time. At least since the Roman Empire the bird was extensively introduced in many places and has become a naturalized member at least of the European fauna. Introductions in the Southern Hemisphere have mostly failed, except where local Galliformes or their ecological equivalents are rare or absent.
The bird was naturalized in Great Britain around the 10th century AD, arguably earlier, by both the Romano-British and the Normans, but became extirpated from most of the isles in the early 17th century. It was rediscovered as a gamebird in the 1830s after being ignored for many years. Since then it has been reared extensively by gamekeepers. Because around 30 million pheasants are released each year on shooting estates, it is widespread in distribution, although most released birds survive less than a year in the wild. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is researching the breeding success of reared pheasants and trying to find ways to improve this breeding success to reduce the demand to release as many reared pheasants and increase the wild population. As the original Caucasian stock all but disappeared during the Early Modern era, most dark-winged ringless birds in the UK are actually descended from Chinese Ringneck and Green Pheasant hybrids which were commonly used for rewilding.
Common Pheasants were introduced in North America in 1881, and have become well established throughout much of the Rocky Mountain states (Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, etc.), the Midwest, the Plains states, as well as Canada and Mexico. In the southwest, they can even be seen south of the Rockies in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge 161 km (100 mi) south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is now most common on the Great Plains. Common Pheasants have also been introduced to much of northwest Europe, the Hawaiian Islands, Chile, St. Helena, Tasmania, New Zealand, and Rottnest Island off Australia. It has also been unsuccessfully introduced to many other countries.
Common Pheasants are bred to be hunted and are shot in great numbers in Europe, especially the UK, where they are shot on the traditional formal "driven shoot" principles, whereby paying guns have birds driven over them by beaters, and on smaller "rough shoots". The open season in the UK is 1 October – 1 February, under the Game Act 1831. Generally they are shot by hunters employing gun dog to help find, flush, and retrieve shot birds. Retrievers, spaniels, and pointing breeds are used to hunt pheasants.
The doggerel "Up gets a guinea, bang goes a penny-halfpenny, and down comes a half a crown" reflects the expensive sport of nineteenth century driven shoots in Britain, when pheasants were often shot for sport rather than as food. It was a popular royal pastime in Britain to shoot Common Pheasants. King George V shot over a thousand pheasants out of a total bag of 3,937 over a six-day period in December 1913 during a competition with a friend, however did not do enough to beat him.
Common Pheasants are traditionally a target of small game poachers in the UK, but due to low value of pheasants in the modern day some have resorted to stealing chicks or poults from pens. The Roald Dahl novel Danny the Champion of the World dealt with a poacher (and his son) who lived in the United Kingdom and illegally hunted Common Pheasants.
Pheasant farming is a common practice, and is sometimes done intensively. Birds are supplied both to hunting preserves/estates and restaurants, with smaller numbers being available for home cooks. Pheasant farms have some 10 million birds in the U.S. and 35 million in the United Kingdom.
The carcasses were often hung for a time to improve the meat by slight decomposition, as with most other game. Modern cookery generally uses moist roasting and farm-raised female birds. In the UK and U.S., game is making somewhat of a comeback in popular cooking, and more pheasants than ever are being sold in supermarkets there. A major reason for this is consumer attitude shift from consumption of red meat to white.
Pheasant hunting in North America
Most common pheasants bagged in the United States are wild-born feral pheasants; in some states captive-reared and released birds make up much of the population
Pheasant hunting is very popular in much of the U.S, especially in the Great Plains states where a mix of farmland and native grasslands create ideal habitat. South Dakota alone has an annual harvest of over a million birds a year by over 150,000 hunters. Much of the North American hunting is done by groups of hunters with flushing dogs such as Labrador Retrievers and Springer Spaniels walking through fields and shooting the birds as they take flight. There are also many hunters who use Pointers such as English Setters or German Shorthairs to find and hold pheasants for hunters to flush and shoot.