In my previous post, about Burnaby Mountain, (click here) I showcased one of our spectacular resident birds, the Sooty Grouse. And not to be outdone by that strutting beauty, we have another resident chicken-relative in our parks, that many would consider even more spectacular, the Ring-necked Pheasant. He’s a very showy guy, as you can see.
And I say “guy”, because like all members of this family of birds, it’s the males that are the showy ones. The females incubate the eggs, and being ground nesters, they need to stay hidden and well camouflaged. In fact, they are so well hidden at this time of year that I haven’t been able to even see one, let alone get a photograph.
Just take a close-up look at this guy. He’s probably got a greater variety of colours than any other bird in our area. What’s your count? And look at the length of that tail, not only to appreciate its striking length, but because on this tail hangs a tale – keep reading.
If you take a walk along the upper trail, immediately below the Oaklands development at the west end of Deer Lake Park, you’re almost certain to hear the loud, hoarse, crowing of a cock pheasant. Variously described as koork-kok, or kok kok, just like a farmyard rooster, he’s proclaiming his territory. On Thursday I counted three males here claiming their turf, often replying to each other in turn. If you’re close enough to one crowing, you’ll also hear a wing-drum, or wing-whirr immediately following the the loud vocal call. This second sound is produced by rapidly flapped wings as the bird rears up to its full height.
The one photographed here can be approached with some care. But if you do see him, don’t walk straight at him. You may be able to get a little closer by taking a very slow, angular path to bring you closer to the bird. Watch his behaviour closely and if he crouches down and starts to retreat, you’ve come too close. Whatever you do, admire him from a respectful distance. Better yet, take your binoculars to bring him into close view.
Of course, all this show, the crowing and the wing flapping is all about reproduction – you know, the Birds and the Bees stuff. Also at this time of year, the facial wattles are crimson and enlarged, as can be seen above. A sign of a vigorous, in-condition male.
In each cock’s territory will be a harem of females that he guards from the intrusion of other males. In technical lingo this is called female- or harem-defense polygyny. No judgements here please; it’s just the way things are in pheasant land. Females under the protection of the male get to focus on egg-laying and incubation and don’t have to expend energy and suffer disturbance from unwanted attempts at copulation by non-territorial, usually young males. Display and crowing will decline as the females finish laying their clutches of typically around ten eggs, but sometimes up to fifteen or more. Pheasant harems tend to be modest in size, frequently around two females per male, but have been recorded with up to fifteen females per male. Whew!
A native of Asia, Ring-necked Pheasants have been introduced around the world, mainly for hunting. The birds at Deer Lake probably descend from birds originally introduced for hunting when Burnaby was much more rural. However, I suspect there may have also been “supplemental” releases over the years by nostalgic hunters who still like to see the birds around.
The ones in our parks are of course protected from being shot . However, you’d think that such a brightly coloured bird, that spends nearly all its time on the ground, would be easy prey for a number of predators. Indeed the pheasant’s life can be a risky one. With all the coyotes, racoons, skunks, and hawks in the park, both adults and in particular the chicks, are very susceptible to predation, as are the eggs that the females are now incubating. The fact that these birds persist in the park is always quite remarkable to me, given the number of things that could make a meal of them. Of course, they provide another very good reason for keeping dogs leashed at all times.
So here’s the tale of the tail. When I photographed this male a couple of weeks back, he was beautifully long-tailed, a plumage characteristic common to all pheasants.
But when I photographed him yesterday something was missing. The same bird is now tailless.
Territorial males rarely fight among themselves, and such a battle would be unlikely to cause this kind of damage. So it seems our friend here had a near fatal encounter and a successful escape. Perhaps a long tail is helpful for more than show. A predator may grab it as the bird tries to escape, and end up with a mouthful of feathers instead of meat. Coyote, or off-leash dog? We’ll never know, but I suspect an encounter with one of the two.
Even though he’s not at quite his former glory, and is just a bit tattered, he hasn’t been displaced from his territory; he persists in guarding his females, and lives to crow another day. Phabulous!