Natural History of The Ring-Necked Pheasant

Spring: Courtship and Nesting
As spring approaches, lengthening days stimulate courtship behavior.

Usually beginning in late March, and peaking in May, roosters claim territories. Within these areas, which may range in size from a few acres to a half section or more, the roosters strut and crow, tolerating no intrusion by other males.

The second phase of courtship occurs after the hen is attracted to a rooster’s territory. He approaches the hen, tilts his body toward her, spreads his tail feathers, and extends one wing downward. His head is held low with ear tufts erect and neck feathers flared. The wattles on the sides of his head turn a vivid shade of red and swell until they nearly touch on top of the head.

As the nesting season approaches, hens select roosters with which they will breed. Pheasants are polygamous, and a rooster will gather as many hens as possible into a “harem.”

After fertilization takes place, courtship ends. The hen chooses a nest site, lays and incubates the eggs, and broods the chicks with no help from the male.

Pheasants nests consist of small depressions on the ground lined with plant material, down, and feathers.

A nesting hen lays eggs at a rate of about one per day. The clutch may number from one to 20 eggs; the average is 11 eggs. When the clutch is complete, incubation begins.The hen leaves the nest only for a brief period each day for the approximately 23 days of incubation.

Pheasant chicks are precocious, capable of leaving the nest soon after hatching, and the hen will lead the brood away from the nest as soon as they are dry.

Pheasants are not noted for their longevity. The annual turnover rate in the population approaches 70 percent. If a brood is lost, few hens will renest.

Summer: Raising the Young
Summer brings many threats to young pheasants, and approximately 35 percent of the chicks die in the first six to 10 weeks following hatching.

Causes for this mortality are extremely difficult to document. Predation and weather certainly play a major role; automobiles, agricultural chemicals and other hazards also take a toll.

Hens will adopt strays or chicks who have lost their own mothers, and a hen with young of two or more age groups is not uncommon.

As they grow, pheasant chicks’ plumage changes. Within a few days of hatching, natal down is replaced by drab juvenile plumage similar in both sexes. The flight feathers are the first real feathers to develop, and by the end of its first week, a chick is capable of short flights.

Adult roosters molt in late July and early August and become quite secretive. Until their new feathers have grown, they are seldom seen.

In late summer and early fall, pheasants are often found in areas where they are likely to find a good source of insects and greens.

As fall approaches, pheasants disband as family groups, and young pheasants begin to assert their independence.

Fall: The Hunting Season
August and its hints of fall - ripening grain, and a change in the plumage of young roosters means the pheasant season is approaching.

The ring-necked pheasant is one of the favorite and most challenging game birds of American hunters.

The ringneck has acute hearing. The slam of a car door or even the metallic click of a closing shotgun chamber may be enough to send mostpheasants scurrying for cover. Human voices also will alert birds, particularly on dry, calm days. The first maxim of successful pheasant hunting could well be “make no more noise than necessary.”


The ringneck also has extremely good eyesight, and the appearance of unfamiliar objects in his accustomed territory may well make him flee. Pheasants are wary, and take to wing or legs at any intrusion, so any use the hunter can make of natural cover is an asset to successful pheasant hunting.

For a bird with a small wing area relative to body size, pheasants fly well, and make up with rapid wing beats what they lack in wing area. In full flight a pheasant may reach 35 to 45 miles per hour. They are not long distance flyers, several hundred yards is about average. The pheasant’s leg muscles are well adapted for running, and this is the bird’s primary method for evading danger.

Many hunters vary their techniques as the season progresses and weather changes. Often overlooked but highly effective is early morning hunting in small grain stubble, a favorite cover type of roosting pheasants. Early in the season especially, careful and quiet movement into this cover at first morning light can provide excellent hunting. Overcast or drizzly days are especially good; in these conditions birds remain longer in the secure, comfortable cover. Late in the season, grain stubble can be productive on overcast evenings or just before a storm breaks. Birds seem to respond to a falling barometer and move into roosting cover early.

Winter: The Time of Trial
Winter weather can severely test ringnecks, but except in extremely harsh conditions, or where habitat is lacking, they can survive the cold season with very little difficulty.

All fall Pheasants have been gaining weight. Their fat reserves build up and will be used during periods of extremely low temperatures and heavy snow cover. They move from summer habitat to winter cover with the first hint of a change in the weather.

In winter, pheasants almost always segregate by sex. Hens are more tolerant of crowding than are roosters, and generally gather in larger groups. Roosters are inclined to roost in small groups or alone, apart from hens.

Well adapted to harsh winters, ring-necked pheasants seldom succumb to starvation or cold in ordinary winter conditions. They are adept at locating food sources even in extreme conditions, and if necessary, pheasants can go without food for long periods, living off their stored energy reserves.

Using their feet and wings, they can dig through a foot or more of snow to find grain. If grain is unavailable, pheasants can subsist on a diet of weed seeds, fleshy fruits, and other plant material. If these food sources fail, it is not uncommon for them to move into a farmyard and feed with domestic stock, or to follow a manure spreader and glean waste grain.

Blowing snow and extremely cold temperatures are severe threats. Without adequate shelter, pheasants find it difficult to survive blizzards. Caught away from good cover when a blizzard strikes, pheasants often die from freezing or suffocation. Caught in the open, they will ordinarily face into the wind to keep snow from penetrating their feathers. Their nasal openings may then freeze over, forcing them to hold their beaks open in order to breathe. Ice balls may then form, block the mouth, and the birds will suffocate.

Wind can force snow under their feathers, where it is melted by body heat. If their feathers get wet, the insulating value of the pheasants plumage greatly decreases, and the moist feathers quickly radiate body heat. This moisture may refreeze, forming ice beneath the birds’ feathers. In these circumstances birds will rapidly lose critical body heat and die.

Nevertheless, in most winters the critical factor for pheasant survival is habitat, and given adequate food, the ringneck is almost impervious to the elements.


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Adapted from
The ring-necked pheasant in North Dakota. 1992. North Dakota Outdoors, 54(7):5-20.

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