Life Cycle of the Ring-Necked Pheasant

The life cycle of the ring-necked pheasant can best be broken down by the four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. The following articles will give you general information about their life cycle by providing a description of each season.


For more information please read Pheasants or History of Pheasant's in Oregon


Life Cycle of the Ring-Necked Pheasant

The life cycle of the ring-necked pheasant can best be broken down by the four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. The following articles will give you general information about their life cycle by providing a description of each season.


For more information please read Pheasants or History of Pheasant's in Oregon



Courtship and Nesting

As spring approaches, distinctive changes occur in the ring-necked pheasant. In response to lengthening days, the pituitary gland in the brain becomes active, triggering the production of hormones which stimulate courtship behavior. The courtship dance marks the beginning of the reproductive cycle; spring is a natural point at which to begin a description of the pheasant life cycle. In order to cope with the rigors of mating, nesting and brood rearing, hens attain their peak weights in spring; they must gather reserves of energy to support egg-laying and to produce the heat necessary for incubation.

Usually beginning in late March, and peaking in May, roosters claim territories. Within these areas, which may range in size from a few acres to a half section or more, the roosters strut and crow, tolerating no intrusion by other males. A rooster's raucous crowing, followed by a rapid beating of wings, proclaims that this is his territory; his aggressive behavior apparently demonstrates to prospective mates that his is desirable genetic material, and that his offspring are likely to be hardy.

pheasant courtship ritualThe second and most dramatic phase of courtship occurs after the hen is attracted to a rooster's territory. He approaches the hen, tilts his body toward her, spreads his tail feathers, and extends one wing downward. His head is held low with ear tufts erect and neck feathers flared. The lores (or wattles) on the sides of his head turn a vivid shade of red and swell until they nearly touch on top of the head. His yellow eyes appear vacant, and he seems to be completely ruled by the biological instinct to reproduce.

Early in the season, hens show little if any interest in the rooster's displays. They may watch briefly, then continue feeding. As the nesting season approaches, hens become more attentive, and finally they select roosters with which they will breed. Pheasants are polygamous, and a rooster will gather as many hens as possible into a "harem."

The gender ratio in the spring breeding population usually averages about 2 1/2 hens per rooster. Since harems average three or four hens per rooster, there are always roosters which do not mate. "Bachelor" birds tend to be a disturbing influence in the breeding population, roaming about as they try to gather their own harems, picking fights and assaulting hens.

All of these bachelor roosters and even many of those which did acquire mates, are surplus to the reproductive needs of the species. A spring sex ratio of six to 10 hens per rooster would be sufficient to ensure species reproductive success. After fertilization takes place, courtship ends. The hen chooses a nest site, lays and incubates the eggs, and broods the chicks with no help from the male, whose reproductive role ends with mating.

Early in the nesting season, hens may seem rather careless about egg laying. Eggs may be dropped at random and left unconcealed.

Later, a hen may initiate a nest, lay a few eggs in it, and then abandon it. Frequently, several hens lay eggs in a single nest, termed a "dump nest" by biologists. It is not uncommon for a dump nest to contain 20 to 30 eggs. As spring progresses, random egg laying ceases.

pheasant nestPheasants are ground nesters, whose nests consist of small depressions lined with grass, leaves and other plant material. Down, feathers and additional vegetation are added as egg laying and incubation progresses.

Nests are established in a variety of vegetation types, and studies suggest that local availability dictates the hen's choice. In some states, pheasants rely heavily upon small grains for nesting. The small grain harvest normally begins during July, well after the peak of the pheasant hatch. Hens that lose early nests and choose small grain fields as renesting sites may also be successful, even if fields are harvested prior to hatching, since stubble is normally left high enough to provide sufficient cover and many hens return to complete incubation after harvest.

Predation of nests is lower in small grain than in any other cover type because nests are spread over a large area and nest predators, such as striped skunks, are more likely to hunt in strip cover such as fencerows and roadsides.

However, a high percentage of nests in alfalfa are destroyed by mowing, which occurs just prior to the peak of hatch. Often these nests become death traps for incubating hens. Chicks that do hatch before mowing are usually too young to escape the swather and hens are often killed with their broods as they try to protect them.

A nesting hen lays eggs at a rate of about one per day. She remains at the nest only to deposit eggs, which may number from one to 20 when the clutch is completed; the average in North Dakota is 11 eggs.

When the clutch is complete, incubation begins. Just prior to egg laying, hens shed breast feathers, exposing a bare patch of skin. This "brood patch" is well supplied with surface blood vessels, and keeps the eggs at the proper temperature for hatching. During egg laying, the hen seems only a casual visitor to the nest, staying just long enough to deposit each egg. During incubation, however, she leaves the nest only for a brief period each day.

Pheasant eggs require approximately 23 days of incubation. During this period, the hen turns the eggs frequently. Although eggs are laid individually over a two-week period, incubation of all eggs begins at the same time and all hatch within a few hours of each other.

phesant chicksWhen development is complete, the chick uses its egg tooth, a projection on top of the beak, to cut the cap off the large end of the egg. Although pheasant chicks hatch from May through August, studies indicate that from 30 to 60 percent of all chicks hatch during the last two weeks of June. The chicks emerge as wet balls of fluff supported on spindly legs. Pheasant chicks are precocious, capable of leaving the nest soon after hatching, and the hen will lead the brood away from the nest as soon as they are dry.

The majority of nesting failures can be attributed to three factors - farming operations, predation, and nest abandonment. All have varying effects from area to area and from year to year, but generally when abandonment rates rise, nest failures from predation and farming operations fall, and vice versa. Generally speaking, high nesting success occurs in years when spring weather is warm and dry.

Habitat, as a factor affecting nest success, is a much discussed topic, but its true importance - providing secure nesting cover - is seldom fully recognized. Moreover, habitat quality is the one factor in nesting success over which man can exert a degree of control, and thus modify the impact of weather, predation, farming losses and abandonment.



Raising the Young

Summer marks the brooding stage in the pheasant reproductive cycle. Once chicks hatch, the hen attends them almost constantly; they are highly susceptible to cold, wet weather and cannot survive repeated or severe exposure. Normally the hen remains with her brood until the young are 8 - 12 weeks old.

If a brood is lost, few hens will renest. If a nest is destroyed or abandoned before the eggs hatch, a hen will renest time and again, until she is successful or simply runs out of time, but a second brood is rare. The common misconception of a "second hatch" arises from the hen pheasant's persistence in trying to successfully hatch one brood, and most young pheasants observed in late summer or early fall are the result of renesting, not of a second hatch.

The time required to lay a clutch of eggs, incubate them, and rear the young makes producing two broods in one summer next to impossible. It takes the average hen 13 to 14 days to lay her eggs, 23 days to incubate them, and another 8 - 12 weeks rearing the young, a total of three to four months from start to finish. If a hen were to start a clutch in early May, it would be August before she could begin again. There is just not enough time for her to repeat the process.

However, radio-telemetry studies in which hens were fitted with small radio transmitters and their activities closely monitored, have shown that a few hens that have lost their chicks within a few days of hatching will adopt an existing clutch of eggs and hatch them. Even in these cases two broods are not successfully raised by one hen.

Summer is also an important season for pheasant management. Among the most difficult studies of pheasant populations is the accurate counting of broods. The summer census provides information about the success of the nesting season, of juvenile mortality, and contributes to setting hunting season regulations.

Summer brings many threats to young pheasants, and approximately 35 percent of the chicks die in the first six to 10 weeks following hatching. Causes for this mortality are extremely difficult to document. Predation and weather certainly play a major role; automobiles, agricultural chemicals and other hazards also take a toll.

Hens will adopt strays or chicks who have lost their own mothers. Broods accompanied by more than one hen are also commonly observed in the summer. This may represent a mixing of two or more broods, or it may be that a broodless hen has attached herself to another hen and her brood. Studies have shown that a hen pheasant may abandon her nest if she sees or hears other hens with chicks.

A newly-hatched pheasant chick weighs slightly less than one ounce. Chicks begin feeding immediately after leaving the nest, and insects make up the major portion of their diet for several weeks. Chicks respond quickly to this protein-rich diet, rapidly increasing in size and strength, reaching a little over half a pound at five weeks, and about 1.5 - 2 pounds at 13 or 14 weeks. Thereafter growth is more gradual.

As they grow, pheasant chicks' plumage changes. Within a few days of hatching, natal down is replaced by drab juvenile plumage similar in both sexes. The primaries, or flight feathers, are the first real feathers to develop, and by the end of its first week, a chick is capable of short flights.

Chicks undergo a virtually continuous molt during the first summer, and begin to replace their juvenile plumage with adult or post-juvenile plumage at about four weeks. Young roosters begin to show colored feathers on their breasts and necks at eight weeks. This molt continues until the chicks are about five months old, and it is almost impossible to tell a 21-week-old bird from an adult by its plumage alone.

Adult hens also molt during this period. They are at their lowest weight of the year after egg laying and incubation, and must use any reserve energy to grow new feathers. There is some evidence that many hens die from this stress. In fact, there are indications that summer hen mortality may exceed winter mortality.

Adult roosters molt in late July and early August and become quite secretive. Until their new feathers have grown, they are seldom seen.

summer pheasantAs in the nesting season, suitable habitat remains a primary need throughout the summer. A series of days in the life of a hypothetical pheasant brood can illustrate the variety of cover types they use.

Imagine a brood of nine chicks hatching on June 16 in a nest established in a roadside. Two chicks chill and die in a sudden thunderstorm shortly after hatching.

A little before sunrise on July 5, the seven remaining chicks move around the roost site in a patch of western wheatgrass along the margin of a marsh. They could just as well have spent the night in a roadside or an ungrazed pasture. As the sun appears, the brood moves into a pasture to feed on insects. On another morning, they might be found eating ground beetles, ants and other insects in an alfalfa field.

Later, the brood moves to a nearby roadside. There they spend the hottest part of the day in the shade of a wild prairie rose bush. Other broods loaf in a brushy fence row or at the edge of a marsh. The roadside is rich with insect life and the brood spends the late afternoon feeding period there.

As sundown nears, the hen collects her young and moves them to a patch of western wheat grass for the night.

Soon the small grain is harvested, and for several weeks the brood roosts in the stubble. By early August only five chicks remain; two died when they contested the right-of-way with a pickup truck. Their diet now includes plant material as well as insects. The roosting field contains abundant grain seeds left by the combine, so they are in no hurry to get to the neighboring corn field where they will spend the rest of the morning. They seldom visit the pasture where they fed a month ago, because that area has been heavily grazed and cover is sparse. A weedy fence row nearby seems a good place to spend mid-day; other broods might choose a marsh or a roadside.

In the evening, the birds move into an uncut alfalfa field with abundant insects and greens. They won't come here to feed in the morning because there is usually a heavy dew; they avoid getting their feathers wet. As darkness approaches they return to the small grain stubble for the night.

By late August, color is apparent on the breasts of the young roosters. Maturing row crops provide excellent cover now, so the brood spends entire days in the shade and shelter of a corn or sunflower field, feeding, loafing, and dusting.

The brood ends the day, as it has ended so many others in the last month, in the small grain stubble; the wheat grass where they roosted in June has been hayed. As fall approaches, pheasants disband as family groups, and young pheasants begin to assert their independence.



 The Hunting Season

August and its hints of fall - ripening grain, and a change in the plumage of young roosters means the pheasant season is approaching. Young pheasants have now been maturing. By hunting season, all but a few late-hatched roosters will have acquired their colorful, adult plumage and have learned the survival strategies which make them such a respected game bird. An understanding of some of these capabilities can assist any would-be pheasant hunter to be more successful and to gain a greater appreciation for his quarry.

Often overlooked is the ringneck's acute hearing. The slam of a car door or even the metallic click of a closing shotgun chamber may be enough to send most pheasants scurrying for cover. Pheasants are reported to have responded to cannon fire some 320 miles away during World War I - explosions inaudible to the human ear. Human voices also will alert birds, particularly on dry, calm days. The first maxim of successful pheasant hunting could well be "make no more noise than necessary."

The ringneck also has extremely good eyesight, and the appearance of unfamiliar objects in his accustomed territory may well make him flee. Pheasants are wary, and take to wing or legs at any intrusion, so any use the hunter can make of natural cover is an asset to successful pheasant hunting.

For a bird with a small wing area relative to body size, pheasants fly well, and make up with rapid wing beats what they lack in wing area. In full flight a pheasant may reach 35 to 45 miles per hour. They are not long distance flyers, several hundred yards is about average. The pheasant's leg muscles are well adapted for running, and this is the bird's primary method for evading danger.

Ringnecks are hardy, and each year many instances of healed legs and wings come to biologists' attention. In addition to their tremendous capacity to heal breaks and wounds, pheasants can often survive after losing feet, toes, or an eye. One study on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska found three percent of the roosters with complete or partial loss of toes on both feet. Five roosters were blind in one eye, probably from fighting. Nevertheless, all were within normal weight ranges. In agricultural areas the rate of injury is undoubtedly higher. Thus, hunters who risk long shots which only put a pellet or two into these robust birds are unlikely to take many home.

Because the pheasant's primary defenses are hiding and running, hunters profit from working cover slowly and methodically. A zig-zag style of hunting is not only effective on birds hiding in heavy cover, but helps to interrupt the run-ahead, circle, and run-back tactics used by other pheasants.

Quick, accurate marking of downed game also helps hunters find birds. Hunting partners who assume responsibility for marking each other's downed birds increase their chances of finding them by "homing in" along two lines of sight. Solo hunters can mark the spot where a bird drops, then work around it in ever-increasing circles, pausing frequently; often a brief pause is enough to make a wounded bird break cover.

In row crops, a wounded pheasant may run straight down a row without the usual zig-zagging, and carefully approaching the field's end often produces the bird.

Many hunters vary their techniques as the season progresses and weather changes. Often overlooked but highly effective is early morning hunting in small grain stubble, a favorite cover type of roosting pheasants. Early in the season especially, careful and quiet movement into this cover at first morning light can providesnow pheasant excellent hunting. Overcast or drizzly days are especially good; in these conditions birds remain longer in the secure, comfortable cover. Late in the season, grain stubble can be productive on overcast evenings or just before a storm breaks. Birds seem to respond to a falling barometer and move into roosting cover early.

As the season progresses, pheasants still retain their early morning and late afternoon feeding habits, but spend more mid-day loafing time in heavier weedy pockets and fence rows. Fire weed, ragweed and wild sunflowers are among the preferred vegetation. Sunny, weedy fence rows bordering sunflowers and corn are choice areas, particularly as autumn days shorten.

Under blizzard or heavy snow conditions, tracking pheasants often produces game. Pheasants will burrow into cover but, especially with snow on the ground, unconcealed tail feathers can give away a rooster's hiding place.



The Time of Trial

Inevitably, fall yields to winter. The sun warms the earth for a shorter period each day and autumn's bright colors turn to gray as icy winds sweep the basin. Winter rules supreme and locks the state in a frigid grasp.

Pheasants have been preparing for the new season's hardships all through the fall months, gaining weight which will enable them to withstand the rigors of winter. Their fat reserves build up and will be used during periods of extremely low temperatures and heavy snow cover. They move from summer habitat to winter cover with the first hint of a change in the weather.

In winter, pheasants almost always segregate by sex. Hens are more tolerant of crowding than are roosters, and generally gather in larger groups. Roosters are inclined to roost in small groups or alone, apart from hens. Thus, the frequent assumption that "with all these hens there has to be a rooster close by" has led many a winter hunter on a useless chase.

pheasant hiding snow2During winter, pheasants utilize marshes, plum thickets, brushy cover with a weedy understory, shelter-belts, woody ditches, bushy fencerows, and unmowed railroad rights-of-way. High-quality cover is essential for their survival during cold months, but where such cover exists, pheasants can easily survive almost anything winter can offer.

Pheasants are adept at locating food sources even in extreme conditions, and if necessary, can go without food for long periods, living off their stored energy reserves.

They burrow effectively into heavy cover, and deep snow causes them little difficulty. They are able to dig themselves out from under drifts several feet deep, and will form complex tunnel systems through cover that is buried beneath a layer of snow.

Blowing snow and extremely cold temperatures are greater threats. Without adequate shelter, pheasants find it difficult to survive blizzards. Caught away from good cover when a blizzard strikes, pheasants often die from freezing or suffocation. Caught in the open during blizzard conditions, they will ordinarily face into the wind to keep snow from penetrating their feathers. Their nasal openings may then freeze over, forcing them to hold their beaks open in order to breathe. Ice balls may then form, block the mouth, and the birds will suffocate.

Wind can force snow under their feathers, where it is melted by body heat. If their feathers get wet, the insulating value of the pheasants plumage greatly decreases, and the moist feathers quickly radiate body heat. This moisture may refreeze, forming ice beneath the birds' feathers. In these circumstances birds will rapidly lose critical body heat and die. Ice storms can also pose a threat.