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.

Summer Rock Concert

It’s a cicada; it must be summer.

The main cicada season doesn’t really start until the chorus cicadas (Amphisalta zealandica) come out after Christmas, but two weeks ago, we found a few chirping cicadas (Amphisalta strepitans) on the rocks around Okains Bay.

Cicadas are largish, as insects go, but they’re well camouflaged. Usually, you find them by sound. As with most insects, it’s the males that do the singing. The main part of a cicada’s song is made by flexing plates (tymbals) on top of the body. Built-in amplifiers (opercula) pump up the volume to an astonishing level. Cicadas are noisy. I don’t know if any of the New Zealand species have been tested, but the calls of some North American cicadas are over 105 decibels at a distance of 50 cm. That’s nearly as loud as a rock concert (115 decibels). When the chorus cicadas here in New Zealand come out in large numbers, they can be so loud in some places that it’s impossible to carry on a conversation.

Some New Zealand cicadas add an extra feature to their song—a bit of drumming called clapping. The cicada snaps the leading edge of its wings against a branch to make a sharp click. Females also clap, and I’ve read (though I’ve never tried it) that you can call the males to you by snapping your fingers.

There are about 2500 species of cicada worldwide. Because of their size and volume, they seem to be culturally important wherever they live. They are eaten as food in many areas, and sometimes used as fish bait. Growing up, my siblings and I used to collect the shed exoskeletons of cicadas and attach them to our clothing like jewellery. When I lived in Panama, the children would catch cicadas and tie strings to their feet, then carry them like helium balloons, flying on the end of the string.

Wherever they live, they mark the seasons. Here in New Zealand, and in America where I grew up, summer hasn’t really started until the cicadas sing.

Loud singing? Drumming? Must be a summer rock concert!

Orange Cake

Having friends over is such a good excuse to bake. I normally wouldn’t experiment for guests, but I was pretty sure of the orange cake I tried out on Saturday, because I based it on my lemon cake recipe.

It’s a close race, but I think I may like the orange version even better than the lemon. I filled the cake with gooseberry jam and drizzled it with a simple orange icing, both of which nicely set off the cake itself.

Here’s the recipe. I suggest trying the lemon version also, to see which you prefer. You might need to make them both several times to decide.

1 cup butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 eggs, separated
grated rind of 1 orange
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup barley flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup threaded coconut

In a medium bowl, mix flours, salt, and baking powder. In a large bowl, cream butter. Add sugar gradually and beat until fluffy. Add egg yolks and orange rind and continue to beat. Add dry ingredients alternately with orange juice and water. Beat thoroughly after each addition. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites and coconut. Pour into greased pans. Bake at 180ºC (350ºF) for 30 minutes.

Orange frosting: Sift 1 cup confectioners sugar into a small bowl. Stir in orange juice by the teaspoon until the icing reaches a thick, just pourable consistency (I used about 2 Tbsp total).

Eau de Paddock

The smell of cattle and rank pasture grasses.

Most of you are saying, “Ew! Disgusting!”

But a few, I’m sure, are thinking, “Yep! Nothing else says summer like that smell.”

And I can guess that, if you’re in the second group, you grew up running barefoot through yours or the neighbours paddocks as a kid. You hopped the fence, dodged the cows (or if you were unlucky, the bull), and swished through tall grass to the creek where you’d wade in the ankle-deep water for hours in the hot sun, catching crayfish, water striders, and dragonfly nymphs. You’d follow the trickle upstream to ‘the dam’, made by countless ten-year-old hands over decades of summers. The pool behind the dam always teemed with minnows, and you’d stand still, hands outstretched in the water hoping to catch one.

The whirligig beetles loved the pool behind the dam, too, and their jiggling, twirling dance on the water’s surface sent ripples across the water, bouncing and refracting into mesmerising patterns.

All the while, the sun heated grass and cow pies, and the perfume of the paddock hung in the hot air and clung to the back of your neck like your sweaty hair.

And when the sun finally began to sink in the west, and you knew dinner was waiting for you at home, you’d climb up from the stream and swish through the paddock again, the cows further off now, in the lengthening shade of the trees. You’d climb back over the fence and take one last, deep breath, storing the summer day, and saving it for tomorrow.

And now, forty years later, you drive past a paddock on a hot day, and in a single breath, you are suddenly ten again, ankle-deep in a creek catching crayfish.