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Ring-necked Pheasant

The ring-necked pheasant, phasianus colchicus, is not native to Wisconsin, but it was initially introduced in Waukesha County, by Colonel Gustav Pabst, in 1916 and soon spread to Jefferson County. Hunting was allowed in 1927 and, based on the early success, stocking began throughout most of the state. By 1942, pheasants were found in all but the eleven northernmost counties, but now populations occur in only a few areas and have been steadily declining since the 1940's. Removal of hedgerows, drainage of wetlands, early mowing in hayfields and the use of pesticides and herbicides has all taken their toll on pheasant numbers. Predators tend to keep the population down once it has been reduced by other factors, and it is now estimated that Wisconsin only holds about 200,000 birds.

Pheasants are larger than most game birds. Males are normally 33-36 inches long and weigh about 3 pounds, while females average 20 ½ inches and weigh about 2 pounds. Plumage patterns differ greatly between the sexes. Cocks are brightly colored, with copper-colored feathers on the breast, brown on the sides, and black and white flecks on the back. The lower back and rump are blue-gray, the head is iridescent black, and there is a white ring around the neck. In contrast, the hens are dull, mottled brown and can be distinguished from sharp-tailed grouse by their larger size and longer tails. Both males and females have short, round wings, curved beaks and long pointed tails, but the cock's tail is twice as long as the hens and can reach up to 2 feet in length. Males also have wattles, or skin folds, on the head and face, and these bright red folds enlarge during courtship to attract hens. Males fight off opposing males during courtship with bony projections on their feet called spurs.

Like many upland birds, male pheasants establish special breeding territories in the spring from early April through May. Cocks display before the hens with enlarged wattles, and the red area around the eyes turns bright scarlet. Each male establishes a harem or breeding group of about three hens with which he mates, and he will defend these hens from other males. Nesting usually starts in April and peaks in May. Hens make their nests on the ground, gathering grass and weeds into a small depression called a nest bowl. Pheasants that build early nests usually choose residual vegetation along wetland borders, hedgerows and roadsides, while later nesters often opt for new growth grassy areas like hayfields. Each hen lays an average of 10-12 olive-colored eggs, and if this first clutch is destroyed, she will often nest again until she successfully incubates a clutch.

About 82% of a pheasants diet consists of grain picked up by its specialized conical beak. They eat mostly corn that is left in the fields, stored or dropped along roadside ditches. This grain supply is particularly important during the winter, when wild seeds aren't available. Other preferred foods are weed seeds like burdock and ragweed, insects, plant leaves and mineral matter. During egg lying, hens eat large quantities of snail shells and high calcium grit to aid in eggshell production. Young pheasants feed almost exclusively on insects to get the necessary protein for fast growth.

Pheasants most often live in flat to gently rolling open country and often roost on the ground in wetland fringes, hayfields or small grain fields. They prefer areas where 55-70 percent of the land is cultivated, mixed with marsh and natural grasslands. Brushy lowlands, cattail marshes and conifer plantations are preferred winter cover and this cover is very important as, unlike grouse, they do not roost under the snow to retain body heat. Pheasants feed most actively just after sunrise and shortly before sunset. During winter, feeding is more intensive and concentrated into shorter periods. Between feeding, the birds remain hidden in protective cover, and they rarely move more than ½ mile. When spring comes, males leave traditional wintering grounds and set up crowing territories of about ½ square mile. These breeding areas do not have definite boundaries and may shift throughout the mating season, but they are vigorously defended.

Hunting of cock pheasants has very little affect on population because they breed with several females, and even with heavy mortality, numbers don't appear to decrease. Hen mortality, on the other hand, can have a disastrous affect on total population. Accidents, habitat destruction, inclement weather and predation all cause pheasant death. Major predators of young pheasant and eggs are red foxes, skunks, raccoons, crows and opossums as well as domestic dogs and cats. Red-tailed hawks, great horned owls and foxes prey on adult birds, and diseases like avian cholera can affect birds but mostly only in captivity.

Currently, pheasants are found in the southeast one-third of the state and a group of counties west of Eau Claire. The density in the northern counties is extremely low, mostly due to the scarcity of agricultural lands and prairies and severe winters. In optimum habitat, population may reach 80 birds per section during early fall, and may be as low as one bird per section in marginal habitat.

Pheasants are as individual as hunters, and react to hunting in a variety of ways, based on amount and type of cover, weather conditions, hunting pressure and previous experience with hunters. To be successful, you first have to locate birds and second you have to get them to behave the way you want them to. Scouting for pheasant is just like scouting for big game, and you can use maps and DNR reports to get you started, but the very best way to find birds is to drive back roads and look for them. Do your scouting at times when pheasants feed or gravel, and don't be afraid to use binoculars to check open grain fields and distant fencerows. Pheasants don't always stay in roadside ditches. Rural mailmen, sheriff's deputies, fuel deliverymen, and anyone else who regularly travels country roads can offer a wealth of information. Genetically, pheasant might be turning more to running than to flying, and this could spell disaster to many a hunt. If a pheasant has in his genetic make-up a tendency to run more than fly, he will undoubtedly live longer and breed more than the fast-to-fly bird that is more easily shot. More birds will be his descendants and they will have the same genetic tendency to run. If you will be group hunting and driving birds, the most important aspect is to have a leader who is both knowledgeable about the birds and the land to be hunted and has the leadership skills to direct a diverse group to a successful and safe hunt. The type of cover you will be hunting best dictates the distance between drivers. Pheasant are masters at running back through gaps in a line of drivers, and they love to run ahead and around the end of the line as well. Some hunters get as much pleasure from watching their dog work as they do from any other aspect of the hunt, and often these hunters prefer to hunt alone with their dog. Lone hunters or very small groups should avoid the temptation of hunting huge fields of standing or recently cut crops, as it will be next to impossible to make a pheasant believe that he has to fly to escape. Fence rows, small sloughs, railroad right-of-ways and roadside weedy ditches where legal are all good places to look for birds. Think small and think narrow. It can be surprising how many pheasants can concentrate in a small area where conditions are right. To get a shot within range, the lone hunter should concentrate on dense cover, where birds tend to hold tighter. The better you know the terrain, the better chance you have to make use of the land to get birds to do what you want them to. A piece of open ground adjoining dense cover can be as effective for the solo hunter as a row of blockers is for the drive hunter. Walk the whole cover, and never stop short of the end of a patch of dense cover. Don't take the easy stroll, but take the difficult walk to flush more birds, and always pause briefly at the end of each stretch of cover. Ten days into the season the rules change, as there are no inexperienced pheasants to be found. Success comes to those who become as unpredictable as the birds themselves. Try to figure out how other hunters might have hunted an area and then do just the opposite. It takes a tough hunter to take tough birds in the late season, when the weather is cold, the snow may be deep, the birds are the fewest and by far the wariest, and they are concentrated. Look for protective cover that offers shelter from wind and storm and close proximity to a food source. Pheasant will be the easiest to find at this time of the year but the most difficult to hunt, and an undetected approach into dense cover with a host of tiny ears listening may be next to impossible. Check frozen cattail sloughs or shelterbelts of dense spruce or pine where the shooting might resemble snapshot grouse hunting.