The Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), Fig. 65, belongs to the Rasorial or Gallinaceous Birds, forming the type of the family Phasianidae (pheasants), which is distinguished by the moderate size and compressed form of the bill, the upper mandible being distinctly arched and overhanging the tip of the lower mandible. The upper mandible is naked at the base, the nostrils are placed at the base of the mandible, and are covered by a scale; the cheeks are naked, and together with the region of the eyes are covered by a reddish skin. The wings are short, the tail is long, wedge-shaped, and consists of eighteen feathers. The three front toes are united by a membrane up to the first joint, and the hind toe is articulated to the tarsus. The male possesses a horny, sharp tarsal spur.

The Common Pheasant was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Aristophanes notices it, as also does Aristotle and Athenaeus. Jason was reported to have brought it, in the famous ship Argo, from Colchis, the modern Mingrelia, a district situated on the eastern side of the Black Sea. It extends in its distribution over Southern Europe, and is said to even exist in Siberia. It is the Fasiano of Italy and the Faison of France. To Southern Europe the pheasant was probably introduced by the Greeks or Romans, and thence into Britain, it being very improbable that it was introduced directly from the banks of the Phasis (now the Rion), a river of ancient Colchis. Indeed, the date of the pheasant's introduction into Britain and by whom and from whence is undecided. In Edward I's time (1272-1307) the value of a pheasant was about 4d. of the then currency, now (1908) the price is 5s. 6d. per brace.

The pheasant is a well-known tenant of our woods and thickets, chiefly terrestrial in habits, and when alarmed takes short rapid flight. The birds are polygamous, the males and females consorting together during the breeding-time, which occurs in spring. The males assemble and feed together during winter, but each selects his bevy of mates in spring. The eggs are olive-brown in colour, and number twelve or fourteen, the simple or rude nest being formed amid long grass or at the base of a bush, the female performing the entire duties of incubation, also care of the young birds. The young pheasants are able to run about and provide for themselves on leaving the egg, their food consisting of soft herbage and insects, and as the birds grow, seeds, berries, and roots are added to their dietary. Soon they take to the fields, where they feed upon grain, peas and beans; later in the season acorns and other wild fruits in hedgerows and thickets are laid under contribution and in winter they obtain a precarious subsistence in woods, where they perch or roost at night on trees, especially on the spreading, horizontally disposed branches of the larch and spruce, tall holly-trees being esteemed places of refuge.

When hard pressed pheasants will visit the poultry yard in quest of food, but this is generally provided against by keepers placing sheaves of corn in woods for the use of the pheasants in winter, and known as "pheasant-feeds," without which it is questionable if pheasants would survive wild in Britain. These "pheasant-feeds," besides enabling pheasants to pass safely over the winter months, encourage flocks of wood pigeons, and though many fall to the keeper's gun, even as many as twenty-six birds on a "train" at a shot, numbers are left to devastate young clover, upon which they mainly subsist, and outstanding tops of turnip and swede crops, as soon as the overlying snow is melted away. From the woods wild pheasants disperse to the outskirts and even hedgerows for nesting in the spring, and are particularly fond of low bushes with long grass at the base, as occurs in young plantations and ornamental coverts, where dry ground obtains with the needful shelter and seclusion for incubation, and also in front or near by open spaces of comparatively short grass and leguminous herbage, upon which the young pheasants may forage and therein find the insect food, such as so-called ant-eggs (pupae), they require.

Sometimes the pheasant-even where no rearing is practised, the preserving being restricted to preventing poaching, keeping down vermin, and feeding in winter-will interbreed with the common fowl, the hybrid produced by the union of the cock-pheasant with the common hen being termed a Pero. The pheasant will also interbreed with the Guinea-fowl, and even with the black grouse. When old the female pheasants may assume the general feathers and plumage of the males, and the recorded cases of "cock's eggs " may be explained as the occasional produce of these aged females. There are white and pied varieties of the common pheasant, but these seem never to be propagated. The Ring-necked Pheasant, so named from the presence of a white ring round its neck, is supposed to be hybrid, resulting from the breeding of the common pheasant with the Chinese (Phasianus torquatus). The Gold Pheasant (P. pictus) of China is a beautiful species, coloured scarlet, blue, and yellow, and with a brilliant erectable crest borne on the head.

The Silver Chinese Pheasant (P. nycthemerus) possesses a general white plumage, the feathers being marked by fine black lines, and the under-parts are coloured black.

The Common Pheasant.

Fig. 65. - The Common Pheasant.

Reared Pheasants is a term applied to those brought up by hand. The eggs are collected as laid by the female pheasants, kept in wire-netted enclosures along with a suitable proportion of male birds, and also from nests outside, while many eggs are purchased from pheasant-farm proprietors or dealers. The eggs are incubated by domestic fowls, popularly known as "clucking" hens, and after hatching out the pheasants are fostered by the hens kept in coops placed in a warm, sunny pasture or grassy place. Here they are carefully fed, tended and protected. In due course the birds pass from the rearing ground to the woods, probably instinctively to secure relative seclusion by day and position for perching at night. In most cases the young birds are "led" to, or even "turned-down" in, certain desirable situations for feeding, roosting and dispersing. Thus hundreds and thousands of young pheasants are relegated from the rearing grounds in August to thickets, plantations and woods in order to acquire a certain degree of wildness, whence they make incursions into fields and naturally feed on the suitable crops therein.

The food of pheasants consists of grain, soft herbage, roots and insects; therefore their devastation amongst cultivated crops will be relative to their number, presence of crops upon which they feed, and the hand-feeding practised in order to keep them from obtaining food for themselves.

Wild pheasants - the naturally reared - are so few that they may be said to do little injury to cultivated crops, while they certainly do some good by devouring insects which otherwise would feed upon vegetation.

Hand-reared pheasants, popularly termed "tame," do not materially prejudice agricultural crops where the woods are large and the adjacent land is in grass, so that hand-feeding is imperative; therefore the rearing and preserving of the birds practically affects no one but the proprietor. Where, on the other hand, the preserves are adjacent to fields of rotation grasses, clovers, roots and cereals, there will be damage more or less to the crops, keepers under such circumstances not exercising much care in feeding in the coverts; indeed, the pheasants themselves prefer to roam and forage for the food they require, especially that not supplied in grain-feeding, while keepers favour the straying of pheasants in the late summer and autumn to fields in the respective domains in view of their being found in thick hedgerows, thickets or belts on shooting-days while the trees in woods are in leafage.

On estates, where the shooting is let, the rearing of pheasants often means letting them loose in August to feed on the farmer's grain and other crops. The farmer has derived no benefit from the insect-devouring proclivities of the birds whilst they were young, or only over a very restricted area, of which he often is not tenant, and the only compensating circumstances are relative immunity of the poultry yard and dovecote from preying animals and birds, and is discounted by an increase of devouring rodents.

In pleasure grounds where pheasants are often preserved, and are great ornaments, little harm is done by them, though at times they make great havoc by unearthing bulbs, such as tulips, for feeding upon them, and by scratching and dusting, generally in the wrong place, interfering with the order of well-kept grounds. Even the young birds reared in pens at side of grassy glades and after leaving the foster-mothers do little mischief to beds and borders, while they certainly keep the grounds remarkably clear of predatory crawling pests.

In vegetable grounds hand-reared pheasants are a plague. The old birds clear rows of sprouting peas and beans, and the "poults" or young pheasants devour all the peas in pod within their "jump-up "reach. Old and young alike have a penchant for green stuff, pecking off the tops of nearly all kinds of cultivated vegetable crops.