Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 22, 2008

Pfield of Pfheasants

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:22 pm

† Today began with the kind of cold winter morning which drives home the point that we are in the depth of the season. Gray skies matched the color of the solid ice in the roadside ditches along the stretch of the east county country road called the U.S. turnpike. The closely cropped and stubbled expanse of the corn fields offered little resistance to the stiff western breeze. Wisps of blowing snow flowed over the hard frozen ground and the road surface like running water. Almost as if they were expressions of the wind itself, a moderate sized flock of Snow Buntings rose and fell over the distant landscape. No doubt these spritely birds enjoyed the scene as it reminded them of their Arctic homeland.

I sped past the buntings and spotted a flock of larger earthbound birds in the field ahead and to my left. It was a group of seven Ring-necked Pheasants -totally exposed to the elements yet oblivious to it. Like the buntings, they were searching for waste grain. The road being totally devoid of traffic, I slowed down to get a better look.

This hardy gang consisted of six roosters and one hen.All had their heads down and were engrossed in scratching away the light snow cover while selecting precious corn kernels with their beaks. Every time they turned away from the wind, their long tail feathers would raise up and flap like grass stems. Every time they faced into it their tails became quivering streamers that trailed behind. I had time to snap a hasty photo before an approaching traveler required me to push on past the scene. The remainder of my journey allowed me time to ponder the plight of the pheasant in these parts.

† In another month or so, the ratio of this group would completely flip flop to something more like one rooster with a harem of up to twelve hens.The males will aggressively eliminate each other with challenges and brief cock fights and vie for the attentions of multiple females. For now, however, the breeding season is far off.Today survival is the main event and small mixed flocks like this are the norm.

† Pheasants are durable northern birds.This fact may seem somewhat surprising when you consider that they are descended from the jungle fowl of Asia.One look at their splendid coloration (especially the males) betrays this exotic origin. The females are elegant in their own brown way as well. The pheasant species stock was hardened in the temperate conditions of Manchuria, Korea and Siberia. They diverged into 30 some varieties micro adapted to varying conditions across the European continent. In their native land they are found in the same latitudes as they now occupy in North America, so they were pre-made for our occasionally harsh winter conditions.†

The bird that was eventually introduced here, the Ring-necked Pheasant, is a hybrid combination of English, Mongolian, Chinese and Japanese varieties. Although first brought over nearly 200 years ago, the species didnít become established until successful plants in the mid 1800s. It probably wasnít a part of our Michigan fauna until the late 1800ís.Now it is an established game bird Ė probably the most sought after game bird in the country. It is hard to imagine a country field without one or two of them strutting about.

† In most cases, an introduced species has a devastating impact on the native landscape. It is a singular fact that pheasants didnít really replace any native bird because they live and thrive in the artificially made world of agriculture. Reaching their population peak in the 1950ís, the general number of pheasants has declined dramatically over the years Ė leveling off in the early 80ís. The main reason for the drop was the advent of clean farming, larger fields, and fewer hedgerows.

† Winter is the great equalizer among these birds. In the best of worlds, only 3 % of young pheasants can only expect to see their third birthday.Winter losses of adult birds can be as great as 66% of the population in bad year. Considering those odds, I believe each fowl enters the cold season with a feeling of dread and foreboding.Fortunately there is not much room in that tiny brain for such thoughts so they stick to the basic living plan without any insurance.

† In order to survive the slim season, pheasants require a healthy mix of available scrub growth, such as a brushy woodlot, for cover against cold winds, along with some open field areas swept clear of snow accumulation. Add a few corridors, like those presented by a cat-tail marsh or long hedgerow, and you have an ideal habitat that allows safe passage between fields.

The small flock of birds that I observed were placing themselves at some risk by venturing so far out into the open. Red-tailed Hawks or Coyotes are more than willing to contribute to their famously high fatality rate. There is method in the apparent madness. In order to reach the rich food resource offered by spilt corn, they move as a group equipped with fourteen eyes. Any thing that moves is quickly spotted by at least one or two sentinel birds at a time.

Yes, the birds noticed me, but knew I posed little or no threat from my position.Should I have exited the car and shortened the distance between me and them, the entire group could have launched into a swift galloping retreat to the scrub line (these guys can cover 18-24 inches per stride when running at full tilt). As a last resort, they would fly off with a series of powerful explosive wing beats and glide into cover.

† As it was, I left these birds to go about their business out there in the open field Ė a field temporarily transformed into a survival lesson.

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