Take a look at your Christmas cards; although there will be plenty of robins, there’s a good chance that at least one of them will have a snowy scene with a group of pheasants.
Check it out carefully and see if it’s a single-sex flock. In the winter-time, you will generally either encounter a flock of males or a flock of females and the picture will probably be of males because they are, of course, more striking.
We get up to a dozen feeding outside the windows of the BTO’s headquarters at The Nunnery in Thetford, taking advantage of the way that finches scatter seed when visiting the bird feeders.
East Anglia is a real hot-spot for pheasants. Although plenty of birds breed naturally, numbers dramatically increase in late summer, when captive-reared birds are released. These bought-in birds tend to arrive in batches, which is why you may notice different colour forms in different years – some males are almost black and there is a lot of variation in the amount of white of the neck-ring and the colour-definition of what looks like an eyebrow. These naïve birds, which wander out in front of cars and turn up in gardens, need to learn quickly if they are to survive long once the shooting season starts on October 1.
As winter turns to spring, an individual male will try to gather a harem of females, which means seeing off any rivals by noisily taking advantage of a high point, perhaps the compost heap, fluffing himself up and giving a rattling call. This ‘one male – many females’ breeding system lies behind the tradition of January cock-shoots, when females are spared by the guns in the last month of the hunting season. You may well have a local spot that is called Cockshoot Wood, Cockshoot Broad or something similar, indicating that there is a long tradition of these late-winter drives to take a late crop of males.
Whatever one’s views of shooting birds, pheasant-rearing provides some real benefits for a range of native bird species. When my wife and I took part in the BTO’s Winter Farmland Bird Survey, we always knew where to look for scarce species such as tree sparrow and yellowhammer and more-abundant greenfinches and chaffinches. Each pheasant-feeder would have a wee flock of small birds around it and others would be flushed from the stands of maize or other game-cover strips that had been left for pheasants and partridges.
Other indirect benefits for birds and biodiversity are provided by thick hedgerows, where a hen pheasant will lay her clutch of about a dozen eggs, and groups of trees in which birds roost at night. The agricultural landscape would look much less interesting without pheasants.
Graham Appleton, who works at the BTO in Thetford will return in the new year with a look at the green woodpecker.