Pheasants: Honorary Natives

We’ve had a lot of pheasants around the house this spring. The common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), also known as the ring-necked pheasant. Is a curious bird…or rather, our relationship to it is curious.

The common pheasant is native to Asia, but has a long history in Europe. It was probably introduced by the Romans, and the first printed mention of the bird in Britain was in 1059.

Who knows what ecological impacts the pheasant had in Britain? I doubt anyone paid attention at the time. By the time people began to worry about conservation, in the early 1800s, it was the pheasant they worried about, as its numbers declined with land-use changes and the introduction of firearms for hunting.

The pheasant was first introduced to North America in the 1770s, and has naturalised in many areas. As in Europe, it has become a popular game animal and is the focus of conservation efforts, in spite of its non-native status.

Many years ago, I applied for a job with a ‘conservation’ organisation in Minnesota. Though I was ultimately offered the job, I turned it down, because its sole focus was on the maintenance of pheasant populations for sport hunting. I struggled to view that as conservation in a place where pheasant habitat was incompatible with habitat for threatened native animals, and where maintaining a pheasant population required captive breeding, because winters are simply too harsh for it to survive, even with appropriate habitat.

Even in Hawaii and New Zealand, where introduced species are almost universally considered pests, the pheasant is fussed over and cared for as a native—bred in captivity and released to keep its numbers up for the benefit of sport hunting.

A search for information on the ecological impact of pheasants is curious. Many sources presuming to address the ecology of pheasants deal only with the threats to pheasants themselves, not pheasants’ impact on the native ecology around them. It is as if even researchers have turned a blind eye to the fact pheasants are non-native over most of their current range. In truth, their impact is undoubtably small compared with non-native predators like stoats, cats, and rats. They tend to prefer disturbed, agricultural habitats (though they have been recorded as competing with native prairie birds in North America) and feed primarily on cultivated foods, weeds, and insects.

Yes, they feed primarily on crops. They’re crop pests. They particularly like grains and small fruit crops, and can cause significant losses in grape vineyards and in small holdings.

So, why do we embrace the pheasant so unreservedly? Let’s face it, most of us don’t eat pheasant, so we get no benefit from the bird. But it seems its long historical association with people and the agricultural landscape have made it almost a domesticated species. And, as we put up with the chickens occasionally wreaking havoc in the garden, so we put up with the pheasants, too.