|Male ("cock") of hybrid stock in Poland
Note thin white neck-band due to a ring-necked subspecies' contribution to hybrid gene pool
|Female ("hen") in England|
The common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) is a bird in the pheasant family (Phasianidae). The genus name comes from Latin phasianus, "pheasant". The species name colchicus is Latin for "of Colchis" a country on the Black Sea where pheasants became known to Europeans.
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 naturalised, 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 that 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 considered a subspecies of 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.
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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 or fiery copper-red and chestnut-brown plumage with iridescent sheen of green and purple; but rump uniform is sometimes blue. The wing coverage is white or cream and black-barred markings are common on the tail. 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. Behind the face are two ear-tufts, that make the pheasant to alert.
The female (hen) and juveniles are 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
This species was first scientifically described by Linnaeus in his Systema naturae in 1758 under its current scientific name. The common pheasant is distinct enough from any other species known to Linnaeus for a laconic [Phasianus] rufus, capîte caeruleo – "a red pheasant with blue head" – to serve as entirely sufficient description. Moreover, the bird had been extensively discussed before Linnaeus established binomial nomenclature. His sources are the Ornithologia of Ulisse Aldrovandi, Giovanni Pietro Olina's Uccelliera, John Ray's Synopsis methodica Avium & Piscium, and A natural history of the birds by Eleazar Albin. Therein—essentially the bulk of the ornithology textbooks of his day—the species is simply named "the pheasant" in the books' respective languages. Whereas in other species, such as the eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna), Linnaeus felt it warranted to cite plumage details from his sources, in the common pheasant's case he simply referred to the reason of the bird's fame: principum mensis dicatur.[verification needed] The type locality is given simply as "Africa, Asia".
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 in Western Georgia – 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.
An investigation into the genetic relationships of subspecies revealed that the earliest subspecies is likely to have been elegans, suggesting that the Common Pheasant originated from the forests of southeastern China. Initial divergence is thought to have occurred around 3.4 Mya. The lack of agreement between morphology-based subspecies delimitation and their genetic relationships is thought to be attributed to past isolation followed by more recent population mixing as the pheasant has expanded its range across the western Palaearctic.
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:
|P. c. colchicus group
|Caucasus to W Turkestan||No neck ring. Wing coverts buff to brown, uppertail coverts rusty to chestnut|
|P. c. chrysomelas/principalis group
|Central Turkestan||No or vestigial neck ring. Wing coverts white, uppertail coverts and general plumage hue bronze to brown|
|P. c. mongolicus group
(Mongolian ring-necked pheasants)
|NE Turkestan and adjacent Mongolia||Broad neck ring. Wing coverts white, uppertail coverts hue rusty to chestnut, general plumage hue copper|
|P. c. tarimensis group
|SE Turkestan around the Tarim Basin||No or vestigial neck ring. Wing coverts buff to brown, uppertail coverts dark khaki to light olive|
|P. c. torquatus group
(Chinese ring-necked pheasants)
|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|
|P. c. karpowi
(Korean ring-necked pheasant)
|Central and southern Korean Peninsula and Jeju island in S.Korea|
|P. c. pallasi
(Manchurian 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 nest solely on the ground in scrapes, lined with some grass and leaves, frequently under dense cover or a hedge. Occasionally they will nest in a haystack, or old nest left by other birds; but they roost in sheltered trees at night. The males are polygynous as is typical for many Phasianidae, and are often accompanied by a harem of several females. Common pheasants produce a clutch of around 8-15 eggs, sometimes as many as 18, but usually 10 to 12; they are pale olive in colour, and laid over a 2–3 week period in April to June. The incubation period is about 22–27 days. The chicks stay near the hen for several weeks, yet leave the nest when only a few hours old. After hatching they grow quickly, flying after 12–14 days, resembling adults by only 15 weeks of age.
They eat a wide variety of animal and vegetable type-food, like fruit, seeds, grain, mast, berries and leaves as well as a wide range of invertebrates, such as leatherjackets, ant eggs, wireworms, caterpillars, grasshoppers and other insects; with small vertebrates like lizards, field voles, small mammals, and small birds occasionally taken.
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, but were known to be introduced in Europe, North America, Japan and New Zealand. 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 1059 AD, arguably earlier, by the Romano-British. It was the Caucasian species mistakenly known as the 'Old English Pheasant' rather than the Chinese pheasants (torquatus) that were introduced to Britain. But it became extirpated from most of the isles in the early 17th century. There were further re-introductions of the 'white neck-ringed' variety in the 18th century. It was rediscovered as a game bird in the 1830s after being ignored for many years in an amalgam of forms. Since then it has been reared extensively by gamekeepers, and was shot in season from 1 October to 31 January. Pheasants are well adapted to the British climate and breed naturally in the wild without human supervision in copses, heaths, and commons.
By 1950 pheasants bred throughout the British Isles although were scarce in Ireland. Because around 30 million pheasants are released each year on shooting estates, mainly in the Midlands and South of England, it is widespread in distribution, although most released birds survive less than a year in the wild. The Bohemian was most likely seen in North Norfolk. 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.
United States and Canada
Common pheasants were introduced in North America in 1773, 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, Uruguay, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia including the island state of Tasmania and small offshore islands such as Rottnest Island off Western Australia.
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 provides ideal habitat. South Dakota alone has an annual harvest of over a million birds a year by over 200,000 hunters.
Much of the North American hunting is done by groups of hunters, who walk through fields and shoot the birds as they are flushed by dogs such as Labrador Retrievers and Springer Spaniels. 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.
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 dogs 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 19th 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.
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 meat.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Phasianus colchicus.|
|Wikispecies has information related to Phasianus colchicus|
- Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus - USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter
- Ring-necked Pheasant Species Account – Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Ring-necked Pheasant at enature.com
- Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Pheasant page
- "Ring-necked pheasant media". Internet Bird Collection.
- Ring-necked pheasant photo gallery at VIREO (Drexel University)
- Interactive range map of Phasianus colchicus at IUCN Red List maps