Phabulous Pheasants

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.

Pheasant#1

Ring-necked Pheasants are named for the white collar circling their necks.
Click to enlarge.

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.

Pheasant#3

Multicoloured describes it, but really doesn’t capture the detail and intricacy of the
Ring-necked Pheasant’s spectacular plumage. Click to enlarge.

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!

Pheasant#4

Erect feather “horns”, and bright wattles are all marks of the territorial cock pheasant.
Click to enlarge.

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.

Pheasant#2

Pheasant with a phull tail

But when I photographed him yesterday something was missing. The same bird is now tailless.

PheasantSans

Now tailless, the long plumes gone, the cock pheasant continues to crow and display.

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!

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8 thoughts on “Phabulous Pheasants

  1. That’s amazing. I’m very glad to see that there are still pheasants in Burnaby.

    My parents told me of a pheasant that would venture onto their deck to eat cat food. That was some 30 years ago, near Patterson and Marine Dr. They figure that development and the encroachment of blackberries destroyed their habitat.

    Thanks for maintaining such a great blog George!

    • Thanks for this, Chris. A little bit of history is great to give us some perspective. Got to keep our blackberries; they’re great habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

    • Hi there, I realize this post is a year old now but I’ve been researching about pheasants in Burnaby & came across the article. The reason is because I have spotted a male pheasant wandering through my neighbourhood near Imperial & Nelson for the last couple of weeks. He wandered through my yard this afternoon, I tried to get a picture but he hustled away very quickly. Again this evening we spotted “Phil” (his new name) on our backyard fence. I also believe I’ve been hearing him crowing in the evenings. I’m very interested & excited to have this fellow taking up residence in my area. However, is this completely out of the ordinary? And might he need some assistance getting home to Deer Lake. I thought you may have some info about this. It is really neat to see this guy in such an urban area but not sure it is the best part of town for him.

      Anyways, thought you may find my little sighting interesting. I don’t think its a very common, makes me want to take up more bird watching:-)

      • Hi Jill,

        There are at least three male pheasants in Deer Lake Park right now calling (kok-kok) for mates. I suspect there are few if any females left in the park. I haven’t seen a female or young for a couple of years now. I wonder if the bird in your neighbourhood is one of the males from the park that’s moved on to search further afield for a mate, or has been “kicked off” his territory by a more aggressive male in the park. It’s hard to know, and I haven’t read anything that suggests pheasants change territory to find a new location to attract a female or two. Seems possible though.

        Pheasants used to be much more widely distributed in Burnaby, and would turn up in gardens fairly frequently. Many birds were released by hunters when you could still hunt in Burnaby and when we had a lot more farms and undeveloped land that provided habitat. As far as I’m aware, Deer Lake is the only remaining place where the birds are still hanging on. It’s definitely unusual these days for a pheasant to show up in any back yard unless it’s next to the park. Enjoy him while he hangs around.

      • Hi again

        Many thanks for the information!! I feel very lucky to have this fellow around for as long as he’d like to stay. Its too bad that there aren’t any female mates for him. I have my camera at the ready now, so I hope to be able to get a picture if he turns up again. I’m quite sure that I’ve heard him, I listened to a pheasant call on you tube and it is the same call I’ve been hearing.

        If I get a good shot of him I sent it over to you. Take care & thanks again.

  2. I walk this area most days and love hearing the male pheasants calling out. I know they’re doing a good job protecting their families. Rare glimpses are always exciting. I too am amazed they survive at all, especially with coyotes active in the park every night!

  3. The lost tail feathers are affecting more than one bird. Picture available actually has two short tailed male pheasants. Could this be seasonal?
    Where could I send picture?

    • Hi Briann,

      The pheasants have definitely moved into their annual moult cycle now, during which most or all of their feathers are replaced over a period of about 3 months. Moult starts in June, and I’m sure that’s the explanation of the two “tailless birds” you observed. Moult is heaviest in July and August.

      However, according to the “literature” the central tail feathers are the last to be moulted. So we would expect them to be retained until September, which makes your observation all the more interesting.

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