Pheasants in northern RI are both popular game and feathered friend

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BURRILLVILLE/GLOCESTER – A colorful bird, about as long as a yard stick and weighing about as much as a pineapple, is strolling through a northwest Rhode Island field of grasses and other vegetation. He’s frequently stopping, scratching at the ground with his feet, and digging with his bill… searching for something to fill his belly while keeping vigilant for signs of the enemy.

Iridescent blue-green feathers cover part of his head; his eyes are circled in red as if to emphasize his intelligence. Most of his body is wrapped in an intricate pattern of feathers of multiple shades of brown, like a feathery cloak that extends into his black striped slim sail-like tail feathers. This keen and richly-colored feathered fellow is a male ring-necked pheasant.

Thousands of ring-necked pheasants live in Rhode Island. They’re stocked by the state, as are fish and turkeys. Despite that pheasants are somewhat numerous in northwest Rhode Island, odds are against finding a pheasant in a typical backyard or at a bird feeder, even in remotest locations.

Yet, a wildlife enthusiast or bird-watcher might get lucky, hit the jackpot and spot a pheasant by searching in overgrown sports fields, big grassy yards, and farm fields – areas pheasants like to be in, according to Kim Calcagno, a refuge manager at Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

“People definitely see them,” Calcagno said.

Calcagno notes that it’s, “so random to happen upon them,” but she’s had close encounters with the elusive birds. 

Pheasants are birds that have to, “worry about predators,” says Calcagno. They tend to stay out of sight. 

She’s been out hiking in a field or meadow when suddenly — a pheasant flies up and out of a grassy hiding place. Making the unexpected all the more unnerving is that pheasants are a good-sized bird. The frightened feathered being, “flushes up,” from the brush.

“When I’m mowing, on the tractor, they flush up,” she says. 

Far more likely than spotting pheasants is hearing them. One of their calls sounds, “very distinctive,” like a, “very old Model A car,” Calcagno says. Those curious can listen to the flight call here.

What’s more, the pheasant can run at the speed of 30 to 50 miles per hour. Unless he’s escaping a predator, then he competes with the speed of an SUV — running 60 miles per hour — or he’ll fly, but he would rather run.

The ring-necked pheasant is deemed a game bird. Although they will move with the seasons from a breeding area to a wintering place, they’re not listed as a migratory bird and therefore have no protected status. Neither are they on the invasive list. They are labeled, “naturalized,” says Calcagno.

“The birds have been here a while,” and are, “normalized into our ecology,” Calcagno explained. 

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife stocks pheasants for hunters at Arcadia, Black Hut, Big River, Buck Hill, Carolina, Durfee Hill, Great Swamp, Nicholas Farm, Sapowet Marsh, Simmons Mill, and Eight Rod Farm. DFW staff also stocks Durfee Hill, Eight Rod, and Great Swamp management areas for the youth pheasant hunting season, according to a DEM press release. 

As a game bird, or prey, pheasants are studied. 

Like the chivalrous knights of old, the pheasant will defend his territory and his lady – the less- dramatically colored, yet still eye-pleasing female mate, and he might have more than one mate. When “Mr. Pheasant,” comes calling, he courts by engaging in what appears to be an elaborate dance as he, “struts in half-circle around female with back and tail feathers tilted toward her, near wing drooping, face wattles swollen,” according to the Audobon.org’s Field Guide site. The strutting around and showing off, so to speak, is a behavior known as lekking; the male pheasant is doing his best to attract females who are shopping around for a worthy male partner.

According to Audobon.org, the female ring-neck pheasant’s activities include no small feat of building the nest –  a, “shallow depression lined with grass, leaves, weeds.”  

Pheasants are omnivores, munching on berries, grains, seeds, fresh green shoots, buds, and roots as well as insects including earthworms and spiders, and the birds are also known to dine on snails, rodents and cold-blooded animals such as frogs, lizards, and snakes.

Although young pheasants can feed themselves at about twelve days old, the little ones stay with their mom for about ten to twelve weeks, and sometimes, too, the father sticks around the family a while, but not usually.

“Ring-necked pheasants are really a lot like us humans,” explains hunter Greg Wagner. “They live their lives on a fairly predictable, routine basis. At first light, they head for roadsides or other areas where they can find grit (small pebbles or pieces of gravel that help the birds digest food.) After gathering grit, pheasants are hungry and want to fill their crops with food.”  

The old adage, “free as a bird,” might not be accurate to describe the life of a pheasant. The title of the film It’s Tough to Be a Bird! from 1969 might better fit. The ring-necked pheasants have much to contend with from problematic weather to that they’re quite popular prey for a variety of predators. Pheasants Forever on their website gives the survival rate of the birds: Mild winter, good habitat: 95 percent; Severe winter, good habitat: 50 percent; Mild winter, poor habitat: 80 percent; and Severe winter, poor habitat: 20 percent.  Pheasants Forever is a sportsmen/women conservation non-profit that claims 130,000 members and a “vision that current and future generations of hunters and conservationists are able to enjoy abundant populations of wild pheasants, quail and other wildlife.”  

“Rarely, if ever, does a pheasant die of old age. In fact, the average life span is less than 1 year. The pheasant…must face major sources of mortality beginning the day it is laid in the nest as an egg,” according to Pheasants Forever. Moreover, “Severe winter storms can potentially decimate pheasant populations overnight. Cold wet springs can claim an equally devastating number of newborn chicks who do not develop the ability to regulate their own temperature until three weeks of age.”

Food is tougher to come by in winter, “when pheasants rely most on seeds, particularly those of grain and weeds… pheasants don’t normally eat buds, and are therefore much more susceptible to periods of heavy snow when their food may be covered,” and, “when stressed by lack of food, pheasants readily approach human habitations,” where they might be fed seeds by, “sympathetic people,” writes Barry Sabean, an expert in Nova Scotia.

Pheasant nest predators include raccoons, skunks, foxes, and feral cats. Predators of the adult birds include foxes, haws, owls – and human beings.  

In fact, Rhode Island has 1,285 pheasant hunters, according to a 2020-2021 survey. In this state as in many other places, thousands of pheasants are bred for people to hunt. The hunt is usually with a dog, and the state does a great deal to keep the pheasant hunting tradition from dying. 

“DEM stocks pheasants to provide public hunting opportunities on select management areas throughout Rhode Island with stocking occurring twice weekly at most locations October 16 until early December and once weekly at other locations through the end of December,” the agency noted.

It’s probably a safe bet most people don’t want a bird to be injured and suffering in pain, or left vulnerable to predatory animals, harsh weather conditions, or slow starvation. But a bird who has been shot will get away if possible, and can be a challenge to find.

“Each year, a segment of the pheasant population is crippled by birdshot and not retrieved by hunters,” noted Pheasants Forever. “By using hunter interviews and check station data, biologists estimate an additional mortality of 10-35 percent occurs due to crippling.”

One hunter online reported, “Pheasants are tough. I found one that had a broken leg, his wing was partially clipped, and looked liked his chest had been plucked. The bird eluded my dogs for 100 yards (until) they finally caught him.”  

At Audubon Society of RI, “remarkably, we don’t get a lot of calls on shot or injured birds” said Calcagno.

They get calls, when various rod and gun clubs raise certain birds – but not so much about pheasants. Usually, calls are regarding quail or partridges.

“We get reports of escapees in people’s yards,” said Calcagno. “We get a flurry all of a sudden when somebody has released [birds].”

Escapees sometimes encounter people who befriend them. Videos of such encounters with pheasants imply they’re intelligent beings. Moreover, although pheasants might to the human eye appear to all look alike, the birds are apparently quite different in personality. One psychologist in England, “conducted personality tests on 450 young game pheasants before they were released onto a shooting estate. They then noted when individuals were shot, or succumbed to either disease or predators. They found that pheasants, which were shyer as juveniles, survived longer after their release into the wild. Bold males were shot first, and were also more likely to die from disease or predation.”

An example of an apparently bold or courageous bird is a video of a pheasant wandering into a yard or could be a farm – and approaching a cat who is eating from a dish. Apparently fearless, the emboldened bird takes over and eats while the cat looks on, perhaps in wonder.

Like a cat, pheasants can leap for a treat. The birds will eat from a person’s hand, and at least one call or vocalization of a pheasant sounds somewhat like a child. The birds will come when called, and they’ll even cuddle with a human being and enjoy being petted.

They get along with farmed animals, including other types of birds.

Another video posted at ECORI.com takes the viewer into the stocking of pheasants in Rhode Island for hunters. The video shows before the sun rises a truck idling as stacks of cages of pheasants are unloaded by the DEM official. DEM will release the birds  – thirty cages, filled with five pheasant in each, at various locations, including in northern RI. 

Up in Mapleville, thousands of pheasants are available for hunters at the popular and renown Addieville East Farm, which encompasses over 1000 acres of ideal upland bird habitat, according to the business’s website. The farm features 20 fields, a 15 stand sporting clays course, fly fishing, two trout ponds and instruction in the art of fly fishing and shotgunning.

In fact, “Addieville is the single biggest poultry farm in the state — and the only one that raises pheasants. Each year, the farms handles about 30,000 birds. Some are brought in for on-site hunting; some are raised and reared to sell wholesale to other hunting clubs and DEM,” reported EcoRI. 

The price of ambling in the rural beauty of Burrillville to hunt pheasants varies; for example, four hunters can “harvest” a “21 Pheasant Hunt” for $628.04. One company online lists pheasant at $37.99 for around two pounds.  

The pheasant, that is the breast, is perhaps purchased for a gourmet meal, to serve, “under glass” – but without iridescent blue-green feathers and eyes circled to emphasize intelligence. It seems the current recipe, “pheasant under glass,” didn’t exist until this century. It originally was made with mushrooms, according to a webpage about the late horror movie actor and gourmand Vincent Price.

Whether under glass or in the field, or perhaps as a feathery friend, pheasants are in demand in Rhode Island. The pheasant hunting season in began in October, and ends Monday, Feb. 28. 

From a bird’s eye view, it could be contended the odds greatly favor the the gourmet cooks and the hunters. 

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