Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 19, 2009

A Floundering Pheasant

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:54 pm

Let me lay a startling statistic on you.  Although this figure varies between regions of the country, it is estimated that up to 75% of our annual crop of Ring-necked Pheasants die each winter. When pheasants enter into the “autumn of their lives” they can reasonably expect that there will be no second summer in their lives. With a track record like that you might come to the conclusion that these birds are wimps when it comes to toughing out the cold season. You’d think a flock of scarlet macaws could do better than that, but you would be very wrong. Ring-necks are actually pretty tough customers and are able to withstand almost any weather condition. It’s just that they have their limits.

While I’m fairly certain that the macaws would experience 100% population mortality if subjected to one day of northern winter, I have no documented evidence to back this assumption up.  I also do not advocate putting this to the test either. Macaws are made for life in the tropics, and that’s that.  Ring-neck Pheasants, on the other hand, are made for northern latitude winters. These birds originally hailed from China where they evolved with weather conditions very similar to our own. The average high/low January temperatures for Beijing, for instance, are 35 degrees F/14 degrees F.  Here in Monroe, Michigan we average a very similar 30 degrees F as a high and 15 degrees F as a low. Another factor to consider is that Ring-necks were introduced to this country about a 100 years ago and have had ample time to adjust to the the harsher conditions found in portions of their adopted range such as the Great Plains. So, why the high pheasant flopping rate? 

I have two answers to this last question. First of all, this mortality rate is not especially high – it is a death rate which is typical of many very successful creatures. Young, sometimes dumb, and often weak yearling animals just don’t have what it takes to make the cut. It’s not survival of the cutest. This may offend our human sensibilities, but it is as much a part of reality as gravity (and one which should give us a good sense of the gravity of  natural survival). Secondly, this brings to mind that about the only thing winter pheasants can’t stand are blowing snow and extreme cold. A string of normal winters will be balanced out by a few really bad years. This, unfortunately, is a bad year.

I spotted a Ring-neck (pictured above) plowing through some deep snow in western Monroe County last week. The bird was belly deep in powder and wandering somewhat aimlessly (see his tracks below). I believe he was contemplating crossing the open field area but was hesitant. You can almost see the indecision in his trail (O.K., I’ll go…No, better not…Oh, why not…Nope, too far…). Pheasants can fly, but prefer to walk. Given the brutal sub-zero temperatures and deep snow – deep for these parts anyway – this bird was looking a little worse for wear and probably trying to limit his energy output.

It wasn’t until the rooster spotted me an made a dash for cover that I realized he only had one tail feather left.  He proudly held his single point of pride aloft as he disappeared into a thicket. Pheasants require a good mix of cultivated field and dense cover (marshes, brushy fence rows, and weedy ditches) in order to survive these trying times. Why this bird was attempting to leave his cover in the first place is anybody’s guess.

These winter birds usually don’t die from outright starvation. They manage to find enough grain, weed seeds, and berries to get by. Some also get taken by Red Foxes, Coyotes, or Great-horned Owls as well. Oddly enough, the birds are more suceptible to the weather itself. They can die of suffocation if caught in a high bitter wind without shelter. Ice will build up and clog their their nostrils and eventually create an ice block in their mouth as they attempt open it up to breathe.

Many of the winter-killed Ring-necked Pheasants won’t actually die until very late winter or early spring. This is the point at which their reserves are totally used up and they just “run out of gas.” Female birds stressed out by a severe winter won’t be able to produce young either, so the entire population takes a dip. The nice thing about averages, though, is that what goes down must come up and unless there is a string of severe winters, the pheasants will bounce back.

I hope my uni-plumed bird male is one of the lucky 25%. He may be a floundering fowl, but he’s got a good genetic background to back him up. He definitely is keeping a stiff upper lip, that’s for sure.

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