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Upland Game Identification

A Basic Guide for Aging and Sexing the Bird in Your Hand

Photo of Species

Ring-necked Pheasant

A hunter needs to know the difference between a hen and rooster pheasant before he or she pulls the trigger. Most of the time, the identity of the bird flushing at your feet is obvious.

There are situations, though, where it is good to hesitate or hold back. Birds flushing into a rising or setting sun are often a tough call. It's not always possible to hunt pheasants with the sun at your back, but it's a good idea.

When your eyes can't make a positive ID on a pheasant, your ears might be able to lend some help. Rooster pheasants often crow or cackle when they launch. Hens are silent except for the rush of their beating wings.

Photo of hen pheasants
Hen pheasants.

Early in the pheasant season, juvenile roosters can be fully colored or hardly colored at all. Consider the photo below. Both birds were taken on October 10 - opening day of pheasant season - last fall, on adjoining sections of land. Both birds were juveniles, but one was fully colored, the other more closely resembled a hen.

Photo of two pheasants
These two roosters were both taken on October 10, 1992 — opening day of pheasant season last fall — within a mile of each other. Both are young-of-the-year birds. The bottom is obviously a juvnile. The top bird id fully colored. To tell whether the top bird is an adult or juvnile, you need to check the length and apperance of the spurs.

The latter bird flushed close to the hunter, showing enough color to indicate rooster, but the hunter wasn't positive enough to shoot until the bird made a feeble cackle on its way up.

Identifying the half-colored bird as a juvenile was easy. Adult roosters molt in summer, but they are fully colored again by early fall. The key to determining age between fully-colored juvenile roosters, and adults, is the spur located on each of the pheasant's legs, between the foot and knee.

All rooster pheasants have spurs, while hens don't. That's why a foot left on a dressed pheasant is adequate for determining sex.

Spur length can vary from just a small nub on a very young bird, to more than ¾ of an inch (including leg bone) on adult birds. The general rule for determining a rooster's age is that if the spur is less than a ¾-inch in length, including the leg bone, the bird is a young-of-the-year. If the spur is more than ¾-inch long, including the leg bone, the bird is an adult.

If there is any doubt as to age based on spur length, Game and Fish Department pheasant biologist Lowell Tripp, Oakes, says spur appearance is the deciding factor. If the spur is dull-colored, and the point is blunt and soft, the bird is a juvenile. If the spur is black, shiny and sharply pointed, the bird is an adult.

Photo of pheasant spurs
The spurs on the legs of rooster pheasants are the key to telling whether the bird is a juvenile or adult. In this photo, the two legs on the left came from birds that had survivd at least one winter. The legs on the right came from young-of-the-year birds.

The length of the spur on an adult male pheasant is generally ¾ of an inch or more, measured from the outside of the leg bone to the tip of the spur. Adult spurs are also usually shiny black and sharply pointed. Juvenile roosters have spurs that are less than ¾ of an inch, measured from the outside of the leg bone to the tip of the spur. Juvenile spurs have soft blunt points and dull coloration.

In a normal fall, even without looking at the spur, a hunter has an 80 percent chance of guessing whether a rooster in the bag is a young-of-the-year or an adult. That's because, according to Tripp, in an average year about 80 percent of the pheasant bag is juvenile birds. Early in the season the ratio of juvenile to adult birds is even higher, up to 90 percent, Tripp said. Later in the season the harvest might include only 70 percent juveniles.

Biologists do not use pheasant wings to determine whether a bird is a juvenile or adult. Both juvenile and adult pheasants molt all their primary wing feathers each year, Tripp said, so the appearance or growth stages of the primaries can not be used to separate young and adult birds. However, pheasant hunters do send in wings along with legs. Tripp measures the growth of the primaries to determine the age (in weeks) of juvenile birds.

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