Tuesday, March 28

Beautiful birds of the pheasant family


Common Pheasant from The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland. – Photo by Richard Crossley/Wikimedia Commons

AS a seven-year-old boy, one November, I visited my uncle who lived deep within the countryside six miles from my home. He decided to take me and my cocker spaniel for a walk to the croft (moorland) very near his house. He was a very skilled marksman and armed with his 12 bore double-barrelled rifle, I felt very safe on this bleak moorland covered with bracken, heather, and gnarled trees.

Suddenly, he swung his gun upwards to the sky and aimed at some large flying birds. ‘Bang, bang!’ and two pheasants came tumbling earthwards. He gave them to my mother to cook but first I had to pluck them of their feathers. I kept their very colourful feathers for years and often wondered why such a beautiful bird was ever found in Britain.

Pheasants were first recorded in England in 1059 AD and are now widespread through Britain and Ireland. It is thought that they were introduced from Asia by the Roman invaders. The common pheasant, which is now widespread throughout the world, is derived from the Chinese ring-necked, black-necked, and Mongolian breeds and thus vary in its plumage. They belong to an order of Galliformes or land fowls.

Its English name is derived from French via Latin and Greek to mean a bird from the River Phasis (now River Rhioni) which leads into the Black Sea to the south of the town of Poti, in Georgia. Globally there are nearly 70 species of pheasant.

Common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

The cock pheasant’s length is about 84cm, including its tail length and has a mottled chestnut and black back. A white collar around its neck marks its iridescent blue-green head. Its head is distinguished by its red, fleshy lobes hanging from its neck, commonly known as ‘wattles’. By comparison, the hen pheasant has a dull and buff coloured plumage, which is mottled so that she can lie low in autumnal fallen leaves and absolutely motionless when predators are about. These pheasants are ground dwelling birds and thus vulnerable to foxes, stoats, weasels, birds of prey and of course humans.


The rearing of pheasants in fox proof enclosures and their subsequent release for ‘shooting parties’ has become big business in rural economies in the UK. Here, nearly 50 million of these birds are annually shot in the air, employing ‘beaters’ to move along the ground to ‘flush out’ the birds. The shooting season starts in October.