Without question, one of the most beautiful bird species to inhabit Montana, while not native, is the Chinese ring-necked pheasant.
This exotic game bird thrives across the United States and is recognized as a great sporting game bird - and consequently, a significant source of revenue - for state wildlife agencies as well as local businesses. Each fall, hunters pursuing this wily bird fill up hotels and diners across eastern Montana and many of the small towns throughout the Midwest. This bird provides the hunter and bird dog with an exciting outing and their harvest is transformed into fine table fare.
First introduced to the Willamette Valley of Oregon in 1882, this majestic Asian bird was subsequently introduced throughout numerous U.S. states. By 1930, the ring-necked pheasant had become part of the landscape throughout the West and Midwest.
While South Dakota is often referred to as the pheasant capitol of the world, Montana is routinely ranked high in terms of pheasant hunters and preferred places to go. Here in the Bitterroot, pheasants are typically found in the river bottom and agricultural fields between the Eastside Highway and Highway 93.
Pheasant populations seem to fluctuate due to various factors, primarily weather, predation, and loss of habitat. Research has shown that wild male pheasants, or “roosters,” have about a 10 percent chance of surviving their first year, yet hens with their camouflage feather pattern have a much better chance of survival.
Captive reared pheasants released into the wild are often preyed upon weeks after their release by some hungry raptor or fox, as these birds are not skilled at avoiding predation. I often hear that coyotes are major predators of pheasants and that reducing the number of coyotes would benefit pheasant numbers.
However, predation studies have revealed otherwise. One of the main culprits for pheasant predation is the red fox. Coyotes will not tolerate red fox competition and will kill foxes or run them out of their range, so keeping a few coyotes around actually benefit pheasants.
Springtime provides some of the greatest opportunity to view or photograph male pheasants as they begin establishing their crowing stations. These are areas where males stake out and call to attract females.
The male sounds a loud “caulk caulk” call followed by a full fluttering of wings and breast feathers. It is quite a spectacle to watch and biologists use these crowing stations to determine the male population in a given area. Observers or listeners drive a route at sunup, stopping every quarter mile and listening for crowing roosters.
In most cases, a male will not crow more frequently than two-minute intervals, so listeners can get a rough estimate of crowing birds in a survey area without double counting calls. Occasionally, two males will meet at a crowing site, which ends up in quite a ruckus with both birds jumping in the air and attempting to injure their challenger with sharp leg spurs.
A crowing male pheasant can attract a harem of up to 20 hens. Following mating, each hen will select a nest site where she will lay around eight eggs. Hen pheasants have an incredible instinct to re-nest if their first nest gets destroyed. She will continue her attempts numerous times if needed to bring off a brood as late as August.
One major factor affecting nest or chick survival is the spring runoff. Hens will select a nest area in May, only to get flooded out when the Bitterroot floods. Additionally, heavy spring rains can lead to poor chick survival if the small down-covered chicks cannot dry off before chilled nighttime temperatures arrive.
All in all, it is a challenge for a pheasant to just stay alive. Research has demonstrated that most pheasant populations turn completely over every five years, with very few birds surviving past five years.
One key habitat component for pheasant is to ensure quality chick or “brood habitat.” In 2006, Teller Wildlife Refuge initiated a “Brood Habitat” Program that essentially provided for moist, bare soil that was timed with the hatch of young birds who sought out the wet soil in search of insects.
This practice has continued around some of Tellers wetlands, and this year Teller hopes to initiate some pollinator plantings. Those will also attract insects during the brood season to provide pheasant chicks with rich protein food sources.
Radio-marked hen pheasants have revealed that they will guide their brood of chicks several miles in search of insect rich brood habitat. If that brood habitat is in close proximity to nesting habitat, than the hen does not have to take her chicks on long searches that increases exposure to predation.
The perfect pheasant habitat is one that provides for good nesting cover, brood habitat, winter food sources like grain fields, and escape or thermal cover such as dense cattail stands, where adult birds can escape the bitter cold during the winter months.
Whether you are managing land to attract pheasants or simply enjoy seeing this beautiful bird visit your backyard bird feeder, the ring-necked pheasant is here to stay in Montana and the Bitterroot. Get out this spring and listen to their majestic crow; if you’re lucky you might even get to witness two males clashing to win over the favorite courtship spot!!
Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge Executive Director has 35 plus years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with Ravalli Republic readers. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at www.tellerwildlife.org.