Monday, 2 May 2016

a pheasant promised land?

A male pheasant and his entourage on the lawn
The Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) is one of our most common countryside birds. The male is striking, with burnished plumage, green head and extravagant tail. The female pheasant has more muted markings so that she can merge unseen into the woodland vegetation when nesting.
The BTO tells us that up to 38 million pheasants are released each year for the shooting season which runs from 1 October to 1 February each year. The BTO also tells us that the pheasant must 'be one of the most ignored' birds for study. Most of those that are not shot are now in our garden.

Sadly, the released and bewildered young birds stray into roads in the autumn and are frequently seen as road kill.
'The Cardinal'
Not at Cordwood though, where food is plentiful, predators thin on the ground and the patrons vegetarian.

In 2015, we had a memorable June when a number of pheasant mums turned up with their groups of chicks: peeping bundles of fluff. They circled the house and gardens as Indians once did in cowboy westerns.
Time went on and the chicks became poults which became adults.
When I went to fill the bird feeders during the winter there would be a rush of young female pheasants, peeping for food.

The mild winter obviously helped our pheasants and then in the spring, when the local gamekeeper stopped feeding his birds, a number of economic migrants hopped over the fence and joined us in what I can only guess is some kind of pheasant promised land.
By late March, there could be up to a dozen hen pheasants jostling beneath the bird feeders like a football crowd, waiting for the expensive seed generously discarded by the goldfinches, redpolls, siskins and tits.

In other years, the males have been the most evident and confident. Pictured is 'The Cardinal' who would occasionally bring a very shy girlfriend to the terrace hoping for a free lunch in 2014.

I think that the male birds must disperse on reaching adulthood, but that the females remain where there is a reliable food source: the result this year has been some very forward hen pheasants.
Their colour variation has made it relatively easy to identify individuals but none has been more striking than the stunning 'Negrita'. Her feathering is unusually dark and she has a beautiful purple iridescence around her neck. She is also the the most narcissistic of the pheasants as she will frequently be seen admiring herself in the windows of the bungalow.

This bouquet* of beauties has drawn the attention of several suitors. One bruiser has laid claim to the ground beneath our feeders and to Judith and Rogers. And throughout the season he has travelled between the two areas, vanquishing all comers. But this punishing occupation has been at a cost and by now, he limps along, tailless and missing lumps of neck feathers. But still he fights to defend his territory even though there'll always be a younger, quicker-on-the-draw hombre waiting to ride in to town. A gorgeous young pretender is steadily pushing him back from our feeders and as they fight, the border of the two males' territories each day is being pushed away from our feeders and is now a quarter of the way across the lawn. Jill feeds the old bruiser: she has an affinity for old wrecks.

Most male birds use calls or song to proclaim their territories. Males will frequently sing in response to hearing another male. Pheasants have a cute remarkable ability to give their territorial trumpet blast and wing flaps simultaneously with nearby males. How do they do that? I say that as a person with reaction times that are best described as glacial.

The males seem to lay claim to the best areas  for feeding and this then attracts females. During the breeding season, the male birds constantly give a low 'whup-whup-whup' call which increases in tempo when food is discovered. This draws females to feed. The females appear to be polygamous - moving between territories to wherever food is most plentiful and mating with the male bird in whose territory they are.

The garden is constantly scoured by pheasants like zebras crossing the Serengeti. I can find no studies that show the environmental impact of pheasants but it must be significant, especially for already under-pressure invertebrates. The hens are now laying and are desperate for food. They flutter around the bird feeders and then move away, constantly searching in the borders and on the lawn. They will lay a clutch of around a dozen eggs which must be a significant proportion of their body weight - hence their urgency to feed.

The vulnerability of the pheasants' nests was evident yesterday when we were labouring through an especially overgrown border. There we found Negrita's nest. And what a diversity of eggs were in there! The conventional colour of a pheasant's egg is olive brown. But you can see from the photo that we also have both pale and sky blue eggs in there. I'm guessing that these are all pheasant eggs - we do have mallards in the garden too but their eggs would be expected to be larger. What I think we have here is an example of 'brood parasitism' in which a hen will deposit her eggs in another birds nest. We know that our hens are not fussy and will lay in the same nest as other hens; pheasants presumably do the same. The advantage for them of doing this is that they spread the chances of their young being hatched.

Pheasant nests are very vulnerable as they are on the ground. Hedgehogs, foxes, stoats, crows, magpies are among the many animals that will take the eggs from a pheasant nest. By laying eggs in more than one nest, the hen birds increase their chances that some of their young will avoid predation.

So, the clock is now ticking. In around three weeks the young will emerge clothed in their juvenile down and all ready to follow mum, peeping. How many will be successful and how many Indians will be circling the Cowboys this summer?

Can't wait to find out!



*the collective noun for a group of pheasants






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