Birds – True Pheasants

We have now come to a consideration of the true Pheasants, which are comprised in three genera and upward of thirty species, five of which are known only in a fossil state from the Miocene and Pliocene of central or western Europe, thus proving beyond question the great antiquity of the group, and showing also that the distribution was formerly more extensive than at present, the range now being from southeastern Europe, across central Asia, to Japan and Formosa. They are for the most part gorgeously plumage birds of large size for the group, few being under thirty inches and some exceeding six feet in length, much of which, however, is taken up by the long, straight, narrow, and pointed tail. The male has the sides of the head naked and covered with brilliant red skin; there is no crest, but the ear-tufts are considerably developed and point backward, and each leg is provided with a pair of spurs. Certain of the Pheasants are among those most frequently seen in aviaries and, being fairly hardy and adaptable in disposition, breed readily in confinement or semi confinement; and several of the species are known to interbreed, not only in captivity but in a state of nature. Thus the Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), which is perhaps really native in southern Turkey, Greece, and parts of Asia Minor, was introduced into the British Islands some sixteen or seventeen centuries ago, and at a much later date the Chinese Ring-necked Pheasant (P. torquatus) was imported, with the result that the two species have intermingled to such an extent that it is rare indeed to find a typical, pure-bred example of either. The Common Pheasant has also been Introduced into many parts of Europe, and this, together with the Ring-necked, Japanese Green Pheasant (P. varicolored), and others, has been introduced into various parts of North America, but the Ring-necked species appears to be the only one that has gained a permanent foothold, being now fairly abundant in Oregon, Washington, and adjacent states, and on certain game preserves in the East, notably in western Vermont. Notwithstanding the apparent thorough establishment in Great Britain, it is said to be doubtful if they could long hold their own without the fostering care of man, with the result that large sums are annually expended in keeping up the preserves. The extent of certain of these great game preserves may be judged from the fact recorded by Newton that in 1883, 134,000 Pheasants’ eggs were sold from one estate in Suffolk, and 101,000 in 1893, while 9700 birds were killed upon it. The question of whether it can be considered dignified “sport” to kill hand-reared birds is perhaps one that must be settled by individual standards.

As already hinted, the Common Pheasant (P. colchicus) is a very handsome bird, the male having the top of the head bronze-green, the rest of the head and neck dark green shading into purple on the sides and front; mantle, chest, breast, and flanks fiery orange-chestnut, the former narrowly margined with rich purplish green, the latter widely edged with rich purple, the upper back and shoulders mottled in the middle with black and buff and margined with consecutive bands of buff, black, and orange-red, and tipped with purplish lake; the lower back, rump, and upper tail-coverts red-maroon, glossed with purplish lake; the under parts are dark purplish green and dark brown mixed with rufous; the tail is olive down the middle, with narrow, remote black bars, widely edged on each side with rufous, and glossed with purplish lake; the length is about thirty-seven and a half inches, of which the tail includes a little over twenty-one inches. The female is mainly sandy brown, barred with black, and attains a length of only twenty-five inches. These birds are ordinarily very shy and retiring in their habits, frequenting woods and the neighborhood of cultivation where there is thick covert, coming out more or less into the open to feed at morning and evening. They are essentially ground birds, but when put up by dogs or beaters rise with a loud whir, and then fly with astonishing swiftness. The nest is a mere hollow in the ground under ferns, brambles, or underbrush, and the eight to twelve broadly oval eggs are usually olive-brown in color.

In the limited space at command it will be quite impossible to give a full account of each form, but we may make a brief mention of the more important or interesting, beginning with the Talisch Pheasant (P. talischensis) of the south-western shore of the Capsian Sea, which offers a transition as it were between the last and the Persian Pheasant (P. persicus), which differs in having the feathers of the breast and fore neck more golden-orange in color, and wing-coverts nearly white; it is an inhabitant of Persia. In northeastern Persia and northwestern Afghanistan the place is taken by the Murghab or Prince of Wales’ Pheasant (P. principalis), which has the white wing-coverts of the last, but differs in having the upper parts more golden-orange tinged with bronze-red on the rump, while in the Zarafshan Valley occurs a slightly different race known as the Zarafshan Pheasant (P. zerafshanicus). Shaw’s Pheasant (P. shawi) of eastern Turkestan is another species resembling the Common Pheasant, but having the wing-coverts tinged with gray, and the feathers of the chest and breast edged with dark green; while most closely related to this is the Oxas or Severtzoff’s Pheasant (P. chrysomelas) of the valley of Oxas, which has a triangular dark green spot at the extremity of each feather of mantle, back, and rump. The Mongolian Pheasant (P. mongolicus) of central Asia and Turkestan is a splendid bird, much resembling the Persian Pheasant, but distinguished at once by having a broad white ring around the neck, a feature which also characterizes the Chinese Ring-necked Pheasant (P. torquatus) and several of the following species, which otherwise differ in having the lower back, rump, and tail-coverts greenish or bluish slate-color. The latter species enjoys a wide range from eastern Siberia and Mongolia to Korea and eastern China, and is the species already mentioned as having been introduced into Great Britain, the United States, etc. Quite distinct from all other members of the genus is the Japanese Pheasant (P. versicolor), which has the under parts dark green and the upper parts deep glossy green, with the wing-coverts blue and the shoulders orange-red; it occurs in all the Japanese Islands except Yezo. The last to be mentioned is the wonderful Reeves’s Pheasant (P. (Syrmaticus) reevesii), of the mountains of northern and western China, the male of which attains a length of six and a half feet, of which, however, the tail slightly exceeds five feet.