The urban countryside – The Pheasant

by Albert Nolan

Every so often a reader emails me around his observations on pheasants. He had seen one recently digging a hole in the ground and sitting in it and was wondering why it was behaving in such a manner?. Like the pheasant I was left scratching my head for a few days and had to hit the books to try and figure out what was going on.


Pheasants were introduced into Ireland from Britain around 1590 as game birds for the large estates. They are related to chickens and both domesticated and wild birds share many of their habits. Hunters find them very attractive birds as they explode from deep cover with a whirl of wings and colour and if you are caught unaware put the heart in your mouth. They are native to China and south East Asia and live in forests and tall reed beds.


Here in Ireland they live mainly on farmland. Because they were prized for the hunt the agricultural landscape was managed for them. Small copses were planted and the edges of fields and the margins of hedgerows were allowed to flourish with tall wildflowers and grasses. This benefited other species of wildlife. Birds, butterflies and moths used them for nesting and found plenty of food there. On the downside the gamekeepers were often over zealous and many predators were ruthless hunted down.


During the breeding season the male can often gather a large harem of females. This is a stressful time for him as he has to keep a close watch on them to ensure that he is the only father of their chicks. Usually they stay around a woodland glade but these are often in short supply. A dangerous alternative is often used. Roadside edges allow a clear view and rival males can be spotted easily. Unfortunately while he is strutting his stuff and trying to entice his females a car often ends his interest. Many pheasants are killed this way. The main reason for this is because bird’s eyes are located at the sides of their heads and this gives them all round vision. But when a car is approaching he can only see it through one eye and he does not realize how big the car is and how fast it is traveling until it is too late. If you see one the road try flashing your lights and this alerts the birds to the danger.


The nest is built in tall grass and consists of a shallow scrapping in the soil lined with a few feathers and grass. Up to 17 eggs can be found in one nest as several females can lay in the same place. To ensure a good healthy population a Shilling was once offered for each nest located. The eggs were then gathered up and placed under brooding hens. These foster parents minded the chicks like there own and when they were big enough they were released back into the wild.


Pheasants are omnivores and eat insects, grains and seeds and are also partial to salad crops but don’t do as much damage as woodpigeons. In the garden bird survey they have been recorded in 34% of gardens. Birds can become quite tame and will eat bread and seeds. Individuals can also be recognized over time as like people their features are slightly different.

All though pheasants have only been here for a relatively short period of time they have become an important and colourful part of our countryside. Comments to or 089 4230502

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