Mixed feelings about pheasants

Posted on January 20, 2017 · Posted in News

For a number of reasons I have mixed feelings about pheasants. A male pheasant in his multicoloured, iridescent plumage is a fine sight. But at close quarters he has a slightly bewildered and gormless expression which for some reason reminds me of Monty Python’s ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’ sketch.

Pheasants are now an integral part of the British landscape, so much so that pheasants in snow are a traditional Christmas card motif. (Though on the cards we received this Christmas they were ousted by puffins in snow – a bizarre idea, as puffins are definitely not around at Christmas time.) But pheasants are not native to the UK; they were first introduced in the 9th or 10th century. An old view, that the Romans brought them, isn’t supported by archaeological evidence and has been generally abandoned, but the Romans certainly knew of them. Roman writers say they were native to Colchis, a coastal region at the eastern end of the Black Sea around the River Phasis (now the River Rioni in Georgia) – from which they get both their scientific name, Phasianus colchicus, and their common name.

Today pheasants are not only well established as a wild bird in Britain, they are bred on an industrial scale by shooting estates. A widely-used estimate is that over 40 million pheasants are released into the countryside for sport every autumn. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation have challenged this figure and produced a lower estimate of 27.9 million. That’s still a lot of pheasants. Whether these massive annual releases have any environmental impact is under-researched and I won’t be drawn into the speculation and debate, which tends to become heated and vitriolic. But it’s clear from the corpses that regularly litter the A470 that a great many of these birds avoid the guns by hurling themselves in front of oncoming traffic. Others, I suspect, wander quietly away from the sporting estates and live incognito as part of the wild population.

I’ve no idea where the pheasants come from that visit our garden. To begin with I saw only females, picking up seeds that smaller birds dropped from the feeders. The first sign that a male was around was a set of footprints in the snow a couple of winters ago. These were twice the size of the prints left by the females, but clearly the prints of a pheasant as they were accompanied by a streak left by the long tail feathers. Subsequently he became a frequent visitor along with a harem of three females. Last summer they nested somewhere in or around the garden, the male patrolling the territory with his regular ‘kok-ok’ call. I’ve no idea how many chicks they produced; I never saw more than five at any one time, but each female can lay 10-14 eggs so there were probably more. Predation probably explains why we haven’t been overrun by them.

Since the autumn the male has been joined by another with even more impressive plumage, including a broader white neck-band and striking white ‘eyebrows’. At the moment they are buddies, and we rarely see one without the other. But their bromance is doomed. In a few weeks, if they are both still around, feathers will fly in territorial battles.