Research Report #40 — Common Pheasant

Male Ring-necked Pheasant © David Johnson

For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.

Read the Report: Common Pheasant. January, 1979. Daniel Smiley.

A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus: The Ring-necked Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus, is a member of the Order Galliformes, which contains the “wildfowl or gamebirds, including the Turkey, Grouse, Ptarmigan, and Ruffed Grouse.” It is an introduced bird, originally from “several parts of Asia.” Dan noted that “some (strains) apparently arrived via England, where they acquired the vernacular name ‘ring-necked….” Today there are about 30 subspecies defined. Some were first imported into the US as early as the 1770s, with various success. They “have (now) been introduced into some 40 states,” mostly on game farms and by state agencies for sport hunting. According to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, they were “first…successfully introduced (in New York State) in 1892 on Gardiner’s Island.” A later release in 1903, in upstate New York “truly established” the species locally. A Pheasant hunting season began in 1908.

Male Ring-necked Pheasant © David Johnson

In this Research Report, Dan presented the Mohonk records and his observations by decade, starting in the 1920s. He was very aware that at the time of this Research Report, “the current (and changing) climate and the (changing) farm land condition…are both less favorable for sustaining a Pheasant population….” Most of the observations over the 60-year span come from the six big Mohonk farms on both sides of the mountain.

Pheasant eggs and nest © Karie Reishus/USFWS

The earliest Mohonk record is from the early 1920s, when the Head Mohonk Stableman, Eli Evans “was given Pheasant eggs for several years” which were hatched by siblings Dan, Keith and Anna “with bantam hens.” They were released from their home, Oak Cottage, “near the edge of the Mohonk Garden.” Dan says, “Details were not recorded.” In the summer of 1927, Dan recorded that Pheasants were “common” at Duck Pond. In August, 12 young birds were seen there, and in September, 6 males and 1 female were noted. In December, 1928, at Mohonk, “two adults and a young bird fed regularly on oats where the work horses were fed on Sky Top”. Another was observed in the Mohonk Garden.

Male and Female Ring-necked Pheasant © Alex Galt/USFWS

In the first half of the 1930s, Pheasants were “recorded regularly” at Duck Pond, and there were a few observed at Brook Farm and Chapel Farms. Of interest was a February 1931 report “of 37 being fed (and observed) in a swamp at the west edge of the New Paltz ‘flats’ floodplain on (the) Arbuckle Farm.” Also in 1931, there were many records of their distinct calls being heard at various locations. Between 1936 and 1945, Dan confessed being “too busy with other activities for bird observations,” but did make the notation that during 1938, one Pheasant each was observed at Duck Pond and at Chapel Farm. Several were also observed in the woods during the late winter in March and April 1938 along Oakwood Drive at the Sugar Bush.

Female Ring-necked Pheasant sitting on a nest © Karie Reishus/USFWS

In the decade of 1946 to 1955, Dan notes that he began getting “regular reports on Pheasants from both” Brook Farm and Chapel Farm, “starting in 1952.” Mohonk’s Brook Farm was actively haying some 300 acres and Chapel Farm was haying some 150 acres. On 14 July 1952, a wild “nest of 8 young were killed in mowing” at the Pig Farm, part of Chapel Farm, on the Northwest side of the mountain. During the summer of 1953, it was reported that “3 broods of six (+/-) (birds were) seen in the hayfields” of Chapel Farm. On 1 November 1953, 9 were observed at Brook Farm. On 3 June 1955, another “nest with 5 eggs was destroyed in mowing” at Chapel Farm, and separately, “7 half-grown young (were) seen.” During the decade, Mohonk provided local observations to the Pheasant Abundance Inventory conducted by the New York State Conservation Department, surveying for the number of Pheasants per farm, and a nest and brood count.

Male Ring-necked Pheasant © Tom Koerner/USFWS
Female Ring-necked Pheasant © Tom Koerner/USFWS

In the decade of 1956 to 1965, wild Pheasants were recorded, but mostly as individual birds. Dan felt “the population at the farms appeared to be fairly stable at a somewhat lower level than the previous decade.” A small flock was fed over the winter of 1955/1956 by staff at Brook Farm Cottage, including four males and three females, and in August, one nest and a flock of young was reported to the NYS Conservation Department. On 10 August 1964, “4 young were seen in road lower end of Mossy Brook Road and 6 young were seen in (the) road (at) Rock Hill.”

From 1966 to 1975, Dan felt the Pheasant population continued to decline from the previous decade, with many fewer records. In 1968, individual Pheasants were observed near the Mohonk Testimonial Gateway and Brook Farm, and one was heard in 1971 at nearby Breezy Lawn. Other 1970s observations of individual birds were made in the Clove, on Forest Drive (one found predated), and along Lenape Lane and Dug Road.

Pheasant Tracks in Snow © Krista Lundgren/USFWS

The decline in Pheasant numbers, documented at Mohonk, and regionally by birders and state agencies, from a high in the 1950s to a relatively “scarcity” in the late 1970s, opened several areas to Dan for analysis. The first potential “cause” area at hand to investigate was the 83 years of daily weather records of the Mohonk Lake Cooperative Weather Station. Dan concentrated on potential critical seasonal impacts to Pheasants, like a sustained on ground winter snowpack covering food sources, and a wet time before and during breeding season. Dan presented the data in appendices to his Research Report, entitled “Critical Seasons for Pheasants,” including “winter snow (Nov. -Apr.),” “winter snow depth of 4in. or more,” and “precipitation and temperature for May, June, and July.” Results of what he called a “severity rating system” did “not correlate with population figures of Mohonk records or the John Burroughs (Natural History Society/Audubon Society) Christmas (Bird) Counts.” As Dan acknowledged, “both of these records may be inadequate for comparisons because of inconsistent observation.”

Male Ring-necked Pheasant © Karie Reishus/USFWS

Looking back over these last nearly four decades since Dan wrote his Common Pheasant Research Report, I am struck by three other “causes” for the Pheasant’s population change that Dan presented that are, from an ecologists point of view, spot on. Principal among these was “changed habitat available to this bird as a result of different types of land use, past and present, (and) altered (Mohonk) farm procedures, as grass ensilage, earlier cutting of hay, different crops cultivated, and changed orchard practices.” And, looking outward, Dan also suspected that over time “the economics and politics of stocking of Pheasants” had changed. It is also likely that at least from 1980 onward, a dramatically increasing population of Coyotes has played a major role in reducing the Pheasant population.

Male Ring-necked Pheasant © Tom Koerner/USFWS

A review of Mohonk Preserve records since 1980, show relatively low but consistent numbers, with some notable observations. An uptick in numbers in the fall of 1983, with a flock of 10 seen near the Chapel Corners, and again in the spring of 1988 along Springtown Road, were suspected to be as a result of nearby “raise and release” programs. In August 2008, two hens and seven poults were seen in Mossy Brook, the poults the possible result of natural nesting. We have not had any Pheasant observations since May 2009. Recently it was reported that some 85,000 Pheasants are raised and released in New York State each year, many by 4-H clubs and cooperative hunting groups. But raise and release is not without controversy, for an obvious number of reasons.

Read the Report: Common Pheasant. January, 1979. Daniel Smiley.

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With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.

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Mohonk Preserve

Mohonk Preserve

With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.

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