USGS - science for a changing world

Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

  Home About NPWRC Our Science Staff Employment Contacts Common Questions About the Site

The Ring-Necked Pheasant

in North Dakota

Summer: Raising the Young

gif -- Summer Logo Once chicks hatch, the hen attends them almost constantly until the brood is 8 - 12 weeks old.

Summer marks the brooding stage in the pheasant reproductive cycle. Once chicks hatch, the hen attends them almost constantly; they are highly susceptible to cold, wet weather and cannot survive repeated or severe exposure. Normally the hen remains with her brood until the young are 8 - 12 weeks old.

If a brood is lost, few hens will renest. If a nest is destroyed or abandoned before the eggs hatch, a hen will renest time and again, until she is successful or simply runs out of time, but a second brood is rare. The common misconception of a "second hatch" arises from the hen pheasant's persistence in trying to successfully hatch one brood, and most young pheasants observed in late summer or early fall are the result of renesting, not of a second hatch.

The time required to lay a clutch of eggs, incubate them, and rear the young makes producing two broods in one summer next to impossible. It takes the average hen 13 to 14 days to lay her eggs, 23 days to incubate them, and another 8 - 12 weeks rearing the young, a total of three to four months from start to finish. If a hen were to start a clutch in early May, it would be August before she could begin again. There is just not enough time for her to repeat the process.

However, radio-telemetry studies in which hens were fitted with small radio transmitters and their activities closely monitored, have shown that a few hens that have lost their chicks within a few days of hatching will adopt an existing clutch of eggs and hatch them. Even in these cases two broods are not successfully raised by one hen.

Summer is also an important season for pheasant management. Among the most difficult studies of pheasant populations is the accurate counting of broods. The summer census provides information about the success of the nesting season, of juvenile mortality, and contributes to setting hunting season regulations.

North Dakota Game and Fish Department personnel conduct late summer roadside counts by traveling the same routes each year. This system provides quantitative pheasant information by area, that can be compared from year to year. Data from these surveys provide game managers with estimates of birds per hundred miles and young-per-adult-hen ratio. These figures are used as post-breeding population indices suggesting population trends from area to area and from year to year. Regulations for the hunting season are based on these trends.

Summer brings many threats to young pheasants, and approximately 35 percent of the chicks die in the first six to 10 weeks following hatching. Causes for this mortality are extremely difficult to document. Dr. Allen Stokes of Utah State University aptly described the scope of this problem when he wrote, "The disappearance of so many thousands of chicks in the short space of a summer, almost beneath one's eyes, and yet not noticed is a baffling experience and an enigma still to be solved." Predation and weather certainly play a major role; automobiles, agricultural chemicals and other hazards also take a toll.

Hens will adopt strays or chicks who have lost their own mothers, and a hen with young of two or more age groups is not uncommon in North Dakota. Broods accompanied by more than one hen are also commonly observed in the summer. This may represent a mixing of two or more broods, or it may be that a broodless hen has attached herself to another hen and her brood. Studies have shown that a hen pheasant may abandon her nest if she sees or hears other hens with chicks.

A newly-hatched pheasant chick weighs slightly less than one ounce. Chicks begin feeding immediately after leaving the nest, and insects make up the major portion of their diet for several weeks. Chicks respond quickly to this protein-rich diet, rapidly increasing in size and strength, reaching a little over half a pound at five weeks, and about 1.5 - 2 pounds at 13 or 14 weeks. Thereafter growth is more gradual.

As they grow, pheasant chicks' plumage changes. Within a few days of hatching, natal down is replaced by drab juvenile plumage similar in both sexes. The primaries, or flight feathers, are the first real feathers to develop, and by the end of its first week, a chick is capable of short flights.

Chicks undergo a virtually continuous molt during the first summer, and begin to replace their juvenile plumage with adult or postjuvenile plumage at about four weeks. Young roosters begin to show colored feathers on their breasts and necks at eight weeks. This molt continues until the chicks are about five months old, and it is almost impossible to tell a 21-week-old bird from an adult by its plumage alone.

Adult hens also molt during this period. They are at their lowest weight of the year after egg laying and incubation, and must use any reserve energy to grow new feathers. There is some evidence that many hens die from this stress. In fact, there are indications that summer hen mortality may exceed winter mortality.

Adult roosters molt in late July and early August and become quite secretive. Until their new feathers have grown, they are seldom seen.

As in the nesting season, suitable habitat remains a primary need throughout the summer. A series of days in the life of a hypothetical pheasant brood can illustrate the variety of cover types they use.

Imagine a brood of nine chicks hatching on June 16 in a nest established in a roadside. Two chicks chill and die in a sudden thunderstorm shortly after hatching.

A little before sunrise on July 5, the seven remaining chicks move around the roost site in a patch of western wheatgrass along the margin of a marsh. They could just as well have spent the night in a roadside or an ungrazed pasture. As the sun appears, the brood moves into a pasture to feed on insects. On another morning, they might be found eating ground beetles, ants and other insects in an alfalfa field.

Later, the brood moves to a nearby roadside. There they spend the hottest part of the day in the shade of a wild prairie rose bush. Other broods loaf in a brushy fencerow or at the edge of a marsh. The roadside is rich with insect life and the brood spends the late afternoon feeding period there.

As sundown nears, the hen collects her young and moves them to a patch of western wheatgrass for the night.

jpg -- Pheasants along a roadside.
Pheasant broods often appear along roadsides during early
morning and evening hours.

Soon the small grain is harvested, and for several weeks the brood roosts in the stubble. By early August only five chicks remain; two died when they contested the right-of-way with a pickup truck. Their diet now includes plant material as well as insects. The roosting field contains abundant grain seeds left by the combine, so they are in no hurry to get to the neighboring corn field where they will spend the rest of the morning. They seldom visit the pasture where they fed a month ago, because that area has been heavily grazed and cover is sparse. A weedy fencerow nearby seems a good place to spend mid-day; other broods might choose a marsh or a roadside.

In the evening, the birds move into an uncut alfalfa field with abundant insects and greens. They won't come here to feed in the morning because there is usually a heavy dew; they avoid getting their feathers wet. As darkness approaches they return to the small grain stubble for the night.

jpg -- Pheasants in an alfalfa field.
In late summer and early fall, pheasants are often found
in areas where they are likely to find a good source of
insects and greens.

By late August, color is apparent on the breasts of the young roosters. Maturing row crops provide excellent cover now, so the brood spends entire days in the shade and shelter of a corn or sunflower field, feeding, loafing, and dusting.

The brood ends the day, as it has ended so many others in the last month, in the small grain stubble; the wheatgrass where they roosted in June has been hayed. As fall approaches, pheasants disband as family groups, and young pheasants begin to assert their independence.

Previous Section--Spring: Courtship and Nesting
Return to Contents
Next Section--Fall: The Hunting Season

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

Take Pride in America logo logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Page Contact Information: Webmaster
Page Last Modified: Friday, 01-Feb-2013 19:43:30 EST
Sioux Falls, SD [sdww55]