The cherished 18th Century 12 Days of Christmas song celebrates a long list of increasingly grand gifts one true love gives to another.
Some say that the original “five golden rings” or “five gold rings” in the song was referring to the colorful neck banding of the ring-necked pheasant. Roasted pheasant was a traditional holiday food enjoyed by the rich folk in both Asia and later in North America, Australia and Europe, where the colorful game bird was later introduced.
Whatever the human lore that has developed over this beautiful bird, the common ring-necked pheasant – seen rarely if at all in Loudoun County these days – has a natural history just as grand as the holiday gift it once represented.
Ring-necked pheasants sport exquisite colors. Males have iridescent gold, copper and bronze feathers across their alternatively stripped and dotted sides, back, wings and long tapered tail feathers. The head is a wonderful bluish-green punctuated by a short crest. And their throat and breast is a deep, brownish burgundy – as regal as the most prized port wine. A bright red face and a white or goldish ring around their neck finishes off the head and shoulders.
Females are a lovely and soft golden-buff color with equally distinctive streaks, dots and stripes. She needs the camouflage … he needs the colorful “I’m here” display. Males in fact establish harems of hens, and will defend those harems from aggressive rivals.
Pheasant are essentially ground birds, with a fast walk-run movement. They do sometimes fly short distances, especially when disturbed by predators and/or what they sense as human dangers. But mostly, they seek concealment. Females nest in fields or in hedgerow-type habitat, incubating up to one dozen eggs on their own. Young pheasant can fly within two weeks of leaving the egg, a defense mechanism against their high mortality rates. In the fall the bird forms flocks, families they will depend upon for survival until the following spring.
The pheasant’s diet consists of seeds, grains, insects, berries and some times small animals. In agricultural areas they benefit greatly from waste grains in after-harvest fields. They also favor the cover and protection offered by agricultural areas that are interspersed with low woodlands and areas of high grass and bushy vegetation.
Males have a loud, rooster-like cackling-type display that lends itself to long distances, a form of communication common to ground birds. They also display a wing-flapping behavior in open areas, especially during mating season.
The wild pheasant’s average lifespan is short – just 10 to 20 months. But, that short life is a colorful, grand and oft noisy one … just so we know, if only in song, that they are out there.