By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
Mom always called them "Awk-awk"s. "There goes Awk-awk," She would comment, and indeed, I would just have heard that sound, followed by a whirring, drumming sound. We would look out the picture window and there he would be, strutting along, resplendent in color, appearing twice as big as life.
The Ring-necked Pheasant represents an odd contrast in man’s objectives, because the species is introduced so that it can be shot at. The birds are actually native to Asia. The Latin name – Phasianus colchichus – gives us a clue. Both names come from the Greek and refer to the Phasis River, which is in Colchis at the east end of the Black Sea, just north of Turkey. This is the fabled site where Jason pursued the Golden Fleece. But that is another story – well told.
So, these birds have been imported throughout the world because sportsmen enjoy shooting them. And then of course – there is ‘pheasant under glass’. They are so popular that they are actually the state bird of South Dakota, quite an achievement considering how many wonderful native birds South Dakotans could have chosen.
Pheasants are the epitome of sexual dimorphism. Oh my – what did Kenny just say? Well, the boys and girls are really different. The cock pheasant has a green head, with a red wattle over each eye, little black feathered horns that stick up on the back, and a white ring around the neck. The body feathers are an impressive array of golds, bronzes, and blacks that often shine in the sunlight. Then of course there is the tail, long and pointed. Cock pheasant tail feathers are sometimes 18 inches long. Some pheasants actually wake up on a snowy morning to find their tails frozen to the ground.
The female is the same general shape, but mainly brown. Where he is designed to attract attention, she is designed to hide. Quite often if you see a cock pheasant strutting about, it is to attract your attention so that one or more females can skulk past, camouflaged in the shrubbery.
But back to Awk-awk -- he is exhibiting something known as ‘arena behavior’. Quite often this display is made while standing on a little mound, or perhaps a fallen log. As he does this, as many as five or six hen pheasants will be checking him out – his audience, so to speak. Pheasants keep harems of females, so this displaying activity is quite important. The better the show, the more hens want to join.
It all looks quite, dare I say ‘awk’ward, to us humans. After the ‘Awk-awk’ call, he sticks his tail up and flaps his wings violently. He has to hold on to the ground for dear life in order not to become airborne. This makes the low-pitched whirring sound. Then he ruffles himself back together again and looks around to see if anyone is watching. This all seems almost comical to behold, but it works for pheasants.
Pheasants can and do fly, but they don’t have the type of aerial skills that would ever get them across Nantucket Sound. If you’ve ever been crossing a field and startled a pheasant into flight, you know it is a heart-stopping experience. There’s an explosion of wings and a frantic, coughing call as the bird springs into flight. Of course, this is a hunter’s dream, and in season, often the end for the pheasant. But on a good day, once airborne, flight is fast and direct. I’ve never seen a pheasant more than fifteen feet up, but once they gain altitude and speed, they can set their wings and glide a long way.
First brought to the U.S. in 1881, Nantucket had its original pheasants released in the mid-1920s. They have required continual restocking to maintain their numbers. In recent years, another hazard has been added to their lives – feral cats. Now an adult pheasant doesn’t have much to worry about from a cat, but the eggs and chicks certainly do. An additional problem is that as more and more houses are built, there is less and less brushy habitat for the pheasants to use. Unless you know the call, you are probably unaware these birds are around.
But if you hear "Awk-awk" around your house, try spreading some cracked corn on the ground where you can view it out the window. You may be rewarded with a visit by a bird from the land of the Golden Fleece.
George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.
If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.
To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.