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The Ring-Necked Pheasant

in North Dakota

Winter: The Time of Trial


gif -- Winter Logo Winter weather can severely test ringnecks, but except in extremely harsh conditions, or where habitat is lacking, they can survive the cold season with very little difficulty.

Inevitably, fall yields to winter. The sun warms the earth for a shorter period each day and autumn's bright colors turn to gray as icy winds sweep the plains. Winter rules supreme and locks the state in a frigid grasp.

Pheasants have been preparing for the new season's hardships all through the fall months, gaining weight which will enable them to withstand the rigors of winter. Their fat reserves build up and will be used during periods of extremely low temperatures and heavy snow cover. They move from summer habitat to winter cover with the first hint of a change in the weather.

In winter, pheasants almost always segregate by sex. Hens are more tolerant of crowding than are roosters, and generally gather in larger groups. Roosters are inclined to roost in small groups or alone, apart from hens. Thus, the frequent assumption that "with all these hens there has to be a rooster close by" has led many a winter hunter on a useless chase.

During winter, North Dakota pheasants utilize marshes, plum thickets, brushy cover with a weedy understory, shelter-belts, woody ditches, bushy fencerows, and unmowed railroad rights-of-way. High-quality cover is essential for their survival during cold months, but where such cover exists, pheasants can easily survive almost anything winter can offer.

jpg -- Pheasant under cover in winter
High quality cover is essential to pheasant survival during North
Dakota's cold winter months.

Well adapted to North Dakota winters, ring-necked pheasants seldom succumb to starvation or cold in ordinary winter conditions. They are adept at locating food sources even in extreme conditions, and if necessary, pheasants can go without food for long periods, living off their stored energy reserves.

They burrow effectively into heavy cover, and deep snow causes them little difficulty. They are able to dig themselves out from under drifts several feet deep, and will form complex tunnel systems through cover that is buried beneath a layer of snow.

In regions of the state where corn and sunflowers are abundant, these grains become staples in the pheasant diet. Using their feet and wings, they can dig through a foot or more of snow to find grain. If grain is unavailable, pheasants can subsist on a diet of weed seeds, fleshy fruits, and other plant material. If these food sources fail, it is not uncommon for them to move into a farmyard and feed with domestic stock, or to follow a manure spreader and glean waste grain.

Blowing snow and extremely cold temperatures are greater threats. Without adequate shelter, pheasants find it difficult to survive blizzards. Caught away from good cover when a blizzard strikes, pheasants often die from freezing or suffocation. Caught in the open during blizzard conditions, they will ordinarily face into the wind to keep snow from penetrating their feathers. Their nasal openings may then freeze over, forcing them to hold their beaks open in order to breathe. Ice balls may then form, block the mouth, and the birds will suffocate.

Wind can force snow under their feathers, where it is melted by body heat. If their feathers get wet, the insulating value of the pheasants plumage greatly decreases, and the moist feathers quickly radiate body heat. This moisture may refreeze, forming ice beneath the birds' feathers. In these circumstances birds will rapidly lose critical body heat and die. Ice storms can also pose a threat.

Nevertheless, in most winters the critical factor for pheasant survival is habitat, and given adequate food, the ringneck in North Dakota is almost impervious to the elements.


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