by Ben Long
Big. Loud. Gaudy. Such are the adjectives that describe the Ring-necked Pheasant. Popular is another. Another is “tasty.”
Ring-necked Pheasants are our most ornamental game bird. Some people call them “Chinese” Pheasants, since they are native to Asia, not North America.
The first Pheasants in North America were released in Oregon in the 1880s. They’ve gone gangbusters since, helped along by the hunters who want to see them propagated and by famers who change habitat to their favor. According to Cornell University, there are an estimated 50 million Ring-necked Pheasants in the world, and about 30 percent of them are in the US.
Over the past 150 years or so, folks have tried to introduce all kinds of game birds in Flathead County. Charles Conrad, Kalispell’s founder and mansion-builder, reared game birds for release.
Of these, pheasants and Hungarian Partridge are the ones that took. Northwest Montana winters are too snowy for quail. Pheasants can survive, if they have agricultural operations to mooch from.
Hunters love pheasants because they are handsome, toothsome, and challenging to hunt. Pheasants are well adapted to farmlands. Before modern agriculture plowed under the valleys of northwestern Montana, the largest gallinaceous (chicken-like bird) was the Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse. Those birds disappeared as native grasslands disappeared.
Pheasants, however, thrive in ditches, cattails, fence lines and riverside thickets. They do particularly well when farmers have an incentive to leave some lands fallow. Hard winters knock their numbers back, but they are prolific breeders and tend to rebound. They are not averse to venturing into town to scratch up sunflower seeds that the chickadees spill or pecking grain spilled in the horse pen or seeds in hay.
If you cannot identify a male Ring-necked Pheasant, you should probably consider a hobby besides birding. Pheasants are the size of a small chicken. Males are flamboyant, with barred tail feathers as long as their body. They have a green head with red cheek patches and bright yellow eyes. Their bodies are bronze, and they have their namesake white neck ring.
Females are about the same size as the males, but are dressed in camouflage to hide while on the nest, which they scrape out on the ground. Hens’ tails are shorter than their male counterparts, but still are long. Females may be mistaken for Sharp-tailed Grouse, but that is irrelevant in western Montana, as that grouse species is basically extinct here.
Pheasant hunting is big doings in Montana and much of the Midwest. Popular places to hunt pheasants locally include the Mission Valley, where protected habitat like Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge is intermingled with agricultural lands. In the Flathead Valley, hunting pheasant generally depends upon knowing amenable landowners for access.
Non-hunters can enjoy the spectacle of pheasant behavior in the rural agricultural lands of the valley. In spring, you can hear them crowing their mating call. Strutting roosters shine against the vivid green of young winter wheat, like copper buttons on a velvet coat. In the winter, you can see them clustered in hawthorn thickets and cattail swamps, adding a splash of color to the monochrome months of late winter.
Pheasants eat grain, wild fruits and grasses in the winter and small green forbs and insects when they are in season. In turn, pheasants are eaten by a wide variety of predators, including humans with 12-bores. Eggs and young are sniffed out by coyotes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, bobcats and feral housecats. Life is tough in the pheasant’s position of the food chain.
To make up for these losses, females lay big clutches of 12 or even more eggs and sometimes two clutches per season.
Ecologically speaking, Ring-necked Pheasants do not play a particularly important role in the natural web of life in northwest Montana. Ring-necked Pheasants will never be a candidate for the Endangered Species List, or even a Species of Special Concern. They exist at human whim. Soundly established, they will likely remain here as long as we do.