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Ring-necked Pheasant

Phasianus colchicus
Overview
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

An introduced species, now a regular, permanent resident; the Ring-necked Pheasant was common during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

Widely distributed across the United States and portions of southern Canada, from Nova Scotia to California, primarily in open agricultural regions and grasslands. Highest densities are in the Great Basin from Kansas to North Dakota (Figure 1).

Conservation Concern:

Game species that is hunted and managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Life History
Migration:

Permanent resident.

Food:

Grains, fruit, seeds, and arthropods are consumed on the ground.

Nest:

On the ground, usually in tall vegetation in a natural depression; a rare nest parasite on grouse or ground-nesting waterfowl.

Ring-necked Pheasant Ring-necked Pheasant. Phasianus colchicus
© Michael Furtman
Figure 1.

Breeding distribution and relative abundance of the Ring-necked Pheasant in North America based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey, 2011-2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

Roberts (1932) detailed the introduction of this species in Minnesota. The first documented attempts began in 1905 at the St. Paul Fish Hatchery. There may have been attempts before that time, but he could not locate any records. Additional introductions were made from 1909 to 1914. Roberts summarized the status of these introductions with a statement by Mr. Rider, the “executive agent” of the Minnesota State Game and Fish Commission, who said, “We regret to state that the propagation of Chinese Pheasants has not proven a success in this state.”

The pursuit to introduce pheasants to Minnesota continued from 1915 to 1928, when 25,000 pheasants and 60,000 eggs were distributed to farmers and others throughout the state by the State Game Farm. The farm was originally located near Lake Minnetonka and was moved to Mound in 1920. The farm was discontinued and reestablished near Madelia, Watonwan County, in 1928 (Roberts 1932).

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (2017a) reported that the Ring-necked Pheasant was first successfully imported from China to the United States in 1881 and the first successful release in Minnesota was in 1916. Roberts (1932) stated that from about 1920, it “rapidly expanded in numbers in the southern, more open, and more thickly settled parts of the state.” Pheasants did not make their appearance in the wooded valleys of the southeastern corner of the state until about 1925, but they rapidly expanded throughout the southern portion of the state. Minnesota also benefited from an expanding population in South Dakota, where they “had multiplied enormously.” Roberts noted that in the spring of 1930 “it was possible to see 150 to 200 birds by the roadside in a day’s drive” near Windom in Cottonwood County.

As of 1932, Roberts said that “pheasants have been liberated in probably every county in the state” and “are present in small numbers here and there as far north as the Canadian boundary, but their continued existence in the northern counties will probably depend upon frequent restocking.” The first Minnesota hunting season was in 1924. In his 1936 revision of his treatise on Minnesota birds, Roberts stressed that the pheasant had “continued to increase greatly in the southern part of the state, and is apparently becoming well established and fairly numerous in the northern counties.” He reported that it was increasing in Roseau County and wintering and nesting in the vicinity of Virginia, St. Louis County.

Roberts (1932, 1936) did not document many confirmed nests, but included 2 nests with eggs at Lake Minnetonka and many in Minneapolis, all primarily in the 1920s. Given the rapid population increase and widespread distribution of the Ring-necked Pheasant in the state, the pheasant was likely successfully nesting in many areas of the state.

Green and Janssen (1975) reported the distribution of the species as southern and central in open-country regions of the state as far north as Polk County in the northwest, and southern Aitkin, Carlton, Crow Wing, and Hubbard Counties. They included a map documenting confirmed nesting from 65 counties. The northern limits of confirmed nests included Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Norman, Otter Tail, Todd, Morrison, and Pine Counties, and Duluth, St. Louis County, where there was 1 confirmed nest.

By 1987, Janssen reported a distribution throughout most of the state, except in the northeast (though regular in Duluth), the north-central region, where it is absent, and the northwest, where it is rare. He stated it was most numerous in the Twin Cities area and north to the Mille Lacs lake area. Janssen documented nesting in 31 counties since 1970 with a northern limit of Mille Lacs, Morrison, and Todd Counties. In 1998, Hertzel and Janssen expanded confirmed nesting since 1970 to 66 counties, including all counties in southern Minnesota and most in central Minnesota. The northern limits included Becker and Norman Counties in the northwest, Crow Wing in the north-central region, and St. Louis County in the northeast.

The Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS), which began in the late 1980s, recorded 813 breeding season locations during its county surveys (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2017b). The MBS’s records also included virtually all counties in the southern and central regions of the state as far north as Morrison County and northwest to Marshall County. They reported 1 location in northwestern Itasca County, but no locations northeast from Aitkin and Pine Counties.

The participants in the MNBBA included 2,977 records for the Ring-necked Pheasant, which were distributed as far north as Kittson, Roseau, Lake of the Woods, Koochiching, and southeastern St. Louis Counties (Figure 2). The species was recorded in 32.1% (1,534/4,772) of all surveyed blocks, and 45.4% (1,062/2,337) of priority blocks (Figure 3; Table 1). Nesting was confirmed in 200 blocks and in 59 counties, including as far north as Aitkin, Polk, and Wadena Counties.

The breeding distribution of the species in the state was predominantly in the central and southern counties of Minnesota, where confirmed or probable nesting was reported from all counties south of a line from Aitkin and Pine Counties to Clay County, excluding Becker and Cass Counties. All breeding evidence in the northern counties was reported as possible nesting, which is defined as “species encountered in suitable nesting habitat within safe dates.” The code for possible nesting is used when the species is heard singing or calling or is visually observed. It records the possibility of nesting activity and a judgment that suitable habitat for the species to nest is also present.

Overall the breeding distribution of the Ring-necked Pheasant has not changed substantially since its initial expansion occurred in the 1920s and 1930s (Roberts 1932, 1936). The species’ stronghold has been southern Minnesota, northeast to Pine County, to Crow Wing County in the central region, and northwest to Polk County. Scattered breeding records and detections have been reported sporadically in many northern regions of the state, but most or many could be birds released from game farms or by individuals.

*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.

Figure 2.

Breeding distribution of the Ring-necked Pheasant in Minnesota based on the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009 – 2013).

Print Map
Figure 3.

Summary statistics of observations by breeding status category for the Ring-necked Pheasant in Minnesota based on all blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding statusBlocks (%)Priority Blocks (%)
Confirmed200 (4.2%)139 (5.9%)
Probable380 (8.0%)292 (12.5%)
Possible947 (19.8%)627 (26.8%)
Observed7 (0.1%)4 (0.2%)
Total1,534 (32.1%)1,062 (45.4%)
Table 1.

Summary statistics for the Ring-necked Pheasant observations by breeding status category for all blocks and priority blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding Habitat

Ring-necked Pheasants are primarily found in croplands that are interspersed with ditches, grasslands, pasture, wetlands, brushlands, and woodland borders (Giudice and Ratti 2001). Habitat and landscape features that provide food and nesting cover with adequate protection from inclement weather and predators are essential (Figure 4). The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (2017a) emphasizes that they “breed in grasslands but spend other parts of the year in both grasslands and cattail marshes near grain fields.” Specific data about breeding habitat for Ring-necked Pheasants in Minnesota are limited but data are available from the surrounding states of Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota (e.g., Clark and Bogdenschutz 1999; Giudice and Ratti 2001). Davros (2017) has recently initiated a study to improve understanding of brood-rearing habitat selection and survival rates of Ring-necked Pheasants in relation to vegetation structure and composition in southwestern Minnesota.

MNBBA data gathered during 1,658 detections of the Ring-necked Pheasant during point counts identified cropland, upland grassland, and marsh/wet meadows as primary habitats (Figure 5).

Figure 4.

Typical breeding habitat of the Ring-necked Pheasant in Minnesota (© Gerald J. Niemi).

Figure 5.

Habitat profile for the Ring-necked Pheasant based on habitats within 200 m of point counts where the species was present during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Population Abundance

Partners in Flight recently estimated a North American population of 14 million Ring-necked Pheasants and a Minnesota population of 800,000 individuals (Partners in Flight 2017). The MNBBA did not estimate a population for this species. Ring-necked Pheasants can be heard for a great distance, especially in open country.

Ring-necked Pheasants have been monitored by roadside counts in Minnesota from 1955 to 2015 (Davros 2015). Counts have varied from a peak in 1958 of more than 400 pheasants per 100 miles, to lows in the mid-1980s and in the early 2010s to less than 50 pheasants per 100 miles. Harvest levels closely follow the pheasant counts. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (2017a) reported that about 350,000 roosters are harvested each year in Minnesota. In recent years, from 2002­­–2003 to 2014–2015, 152,800 pheasants were harvested in 2014–2015, and a high of 655,443 pheasants were taken in 2007–2008 (Davros 2015). During this same period, the number of hunters varied from a low of 57,950 in 2014–2015 to a high of 118,703 in 2006–2007.

Giudice and Ratti (2001) suggested that Ring-necked Pheasant populations in North America probably peaked between the 1930s and 1950s. The federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) counts in Minnesota from 1967 to 2015 indicated a highly variable population with no trend (Figure 6). High counts were observed from 1966 to the early 1980s, but since that time, counts have been much lower. The lowest counts have occurred since 2010. Survey-wide in North America, the Ring-necked Pheasant population has declined from 1966 to 2015 by 0.64% per year. Declines in the species from 1966 to 2015 are widespread across North America, especially in the western United States and throughout much of the Midwest (Figure 7). Trends continue to be positive in the major portion of the species’ range in the Great Basin from Nebraska northward to southern Manitoba and Alberta.

The BBS roadside counts also provide a general measure of the relative abundance of the Ring-necked Pheasant in North America (Figure 1). In Minnesota, an average of 26 pheasants are detected on BBS routes per year (Sauer et al. 2017). Highest detection rates are found in Kansas, with a mean of 150 per route per year. In Nebraska the mean is 119; in Iowa, 112; in South Dakota, 64; and in North Dakota, 47.

Declines in the population of Ring-necked Pheasants have primarily been attributed to changes in agricultural practices to large-scale “clean farming” and subsequent reductions in nesting and winter cover habitat (Clark and Bogenschutz 1999; Guidice and Ratti 2001). Davros (2015) suggested also that loss of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands in Minnesota has contributed to the recent declines since the mid-2000s, because current low populations are similar to the counts in the mid-1980s before the CRP program began.

Guidice and Ratti (2001) identified critical issues affecting the population of Ring-necked Pheasants as available habitat and appropriate landscape configurations. Key factors in population regulation include reproductive success, predation, and overwinter survival. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (2017a) notes that permanent protection of grasslands and wetlands is important to maintain populations of pheasants. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources states also that there are not enough idle grasslands for hens to nest in and not enough cattail marshes where they can hide from cold weather. Pheasant die-offs occur during extreme winter conditions, such as blizzards.

Green and Janssen (1975) stated that peak populations of the species occurred in the early 1940s, and Janssen (1987) added peaks in the late 1950s. Both documents emphasized that “clean farming” in the south and west-central portions of the state resulted in substantial reductions in the species’ population.

Figure 6.

Breeding population trend for the Ring-necked Pheasant in Minnesota for 1967–2015 based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey (Sauer et al 2017).

Figure 7.

Breeding population trend map for the Ring-necked Pheasant in North America for 1966–2015 based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey (Sauer et al. 2017).

Conservation

The Ring-necked Pheasant is a highly popular game bird throughout much of its range, including Minnesota. Therefore, populations are managed to maintain adequate levels. Roosters are the primary hunted sex, and hunting can significantly contribute to the annual mortality of male pheasants. However, the Ring-necked Pheasant mating system is described as a “harem-defense polygyny” system. It is a compensatory mechanism in which groups of females will select one male or one male territory. Roosters can defend the females from other male intruders, and fewer males are necessary to successfully propagate the pheasant population. Giudice and Ratti (2001) suggest that partly because of this system, hunting mortality of male pheasants is probably not an important limiting factor in most cases.

Most pheasant conservation efforts are directed toward habitat and landscape management to provide appropriate nesting cover, thus reducing nesting losses, and to provide adequate winter cover. Historically, additional pheasant stocking and predator control methods have been carried out, but these options are controversial and expensive. They may also have limited success in increasing pheasant populations. Programs that increase available habitat, such as the CRP and conservation easement programs, have proven effective. Delaying mowing of roadsides and fields until late July has also been effective (Giudice and Ratti 2001).

Ring-necked Pheasants are, however, a nonnative introduced species that has been documented to have potentially negative effects on native grouse species, such as the Greater Prairie Chicken (Svedarsky et al. 1982). Kimmel (1988) cited nest parasitism, competition for habitat, transmission of disease, and aggressive behavior as harmful impacts associated with Ring-necked Pheasants. Effects of future climate change on the species are poorly known.

Ring-necked Pheasants are not only a popular game bird; they also elicit excitement from all wildlife enthusiasts, who marvel at the sight of the stoic and colorful male. Its popularity and its populations will likely be maintained for many years to come, but achieving the population levels of earlier years will be challenging for management agencies because of the many demands for use of Minnesota’s open lands.

  • Clark, William R., and Todd R. Bogenschutz. 1999. “Grassland Habitat and Reproductive Success of Ring-necked Pheasants in Northern Iowa.” Journal of Field Ornithology 70: 380–392.

  • Davros, Nicole M. 2015. 2015 Minnesota August Roadside Survey. Madelia: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/publications/wildlife/population2015/1-farmland-wildlife.pdf

  • Davros, Nicole M. 2017. “An Evaluation of Nesting and Brood-Rearing Habitat Selection and Survival Rates of Ring-necked Pheasants in Relation to Vegetation Structure and Composition.” In Summaries of Wildlife Research Findings 2015, edited by Lou Cornicelli, Michelle Carstensen, Gino D’Angelo, Michael A. Larson, and Jeffrey S. Lawrence, 254–267. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/publications/wildlife/research2015/full.pdf

  • Giudice, John H., and John T. Ratti. 2001. “Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus).” The Birds of North America, edited by Paul G. Rodewald. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved from the Birds of North America: https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/rinphe doi: 10.2173/bna.572

  • Green, Janet C., and Robert B. Janssen. 1975. Minnesota Birds: Where, When and How Many. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Hertzel, Anthony X., and Robert B. Janssen. 1998. County Nesting Records of Minnesota Birds. Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers, no 2. Minneapolis: The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union.

  • Janssen, Robert B. 1987. Birds in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Kimmel, Richard O. 1988. “Potential Impacts of Ring-necked Pheasants on Other Game Birds.” In Pheasants: Symptoms of Wildlife Problems on Agricultural Lands, edited by Diana L. Hallett, William R. Edwards, and George V. Burger, 253–265. Bloomington, IN: North Central Section of The Wildlife Society.

  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2017a. “Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus).” http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/birds/ringneckedpheasant.html

  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2017b. “Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus).” Minnesota Biological Survey: Breeding Bird Locations. http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/mcbs/birdmaps/ring_necked_pheasant_map.pdf

  • Partners in Flight. 2017. Avian Conservation Assessment Database [Online].  http://pif.birdconservancy.org

  • Roberts, Thomas S. 1932. The Birds of Minnesota. 2 vols. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Roberts, Thomas S. 1936. The Birds of Minnesota. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Sauer, John R., Daniel K. Niven, James E. Hines, David J. Ziolkowski Jr., Keith L. Pardieck, Jane E. Fallon, and William A. Link. 2017. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 12.23.2015. Laurel, MD: U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/

  • Svedarsky, W. Daniel, Richard J. Oehlenschlager, and Tod D. Tonsager. 1982. “A Remnant Flock of Greater Prairie Chickens in North Central Minnesota.” Loon 54: 5–13.