COURTSHIP

Bird Watching (UK) - - Species Pheasant -

If we look be­yond the kitsch and re­mem­ber about fe­male mate choice and com­pe­ti­tion among males, we can be­gin to ap­pre­ci­ate that, whether out of place or not, Pheas­ants are still sub­ject to the same pres­sures and mo­ti­va­tions as any other free-liv­ing bird. You can hatch from a pen, but still be as wild at heart as a free con­tem­po­rary, no dif­fer­ent, per­haps, from our own species of Pheas­ant liv­ing in a Hi­malayan meadow. Some­where in Bri­tain, at any one time, there might also be in­di­vid­ual Pheas­ants that have never seen a hu­man be­ing, liv­ing as nat­u­rally as wag­tails or pip­its or any other na­tive bird. And what­ever their prove­nance, and how­ever much they might be pol­luted in a bird­watcher’s opin­ion, the birds them­selves throb with au­then­tic zest.

Fight­ing talk

At no time is this more ob­vi­ous than when you see males fight­ing. It can be a dra­matic an­ti­dote to the all-per­vad­ing im­age of Pheas­ants just mooching around on fields, or hold­ing stat­uesque poses. At first, the cocks will sim­ply pa­rade up and down, like big cats pac­ing along the edge of their cages, each be­strid­ing an in­vis­i­ble bound­ary, glar­ing at each other with their am­ber eyes. This is stir­ring enough, but it might not take long to boil over. Then the two males will run at full pelt, and may rise breast-to-breast, strik­ing at their op­po­nent’s wat­tles with feet or bill. Their wings flut­ter and they ut­ter those typ­i­cal loud cough­ing calls, which echo across the field of battle. For a moment blood-and-guts re­place the glam­our. These fights have con­se­quences, be­cause not one fe­male, but a whole harem could be at stake. Pheas­ants are highly un­usual among British (or sort of British) birds in that sev­eral fe­males may form an at­tach­ment to a sin­gle male that re­news each sea­son, even though the sexes win­ter apart. These fe­males come to visit the male in its ter­ri­tory, but of­ten ac­tu­ally nest out­side it. The ad­van­tage to a fe­male is, that by as­so­ci­at­ing with a sin­gle high qual­ity male dur­ing the early breed­ing sea­son, they avoid the hassle of be­ing con­stantly chased. In males it pro­duces an equal, win­ner-takes-all so­ci­ety. Nev­er­the­less, a de­gree of woo­ing al­ways goes down well, and some of my own favourite ex­pe­ri­ences with Pheas­ants have been in wit­ness­ing the de­light­ful dis­plays of the male to a fe­male. They have that usual deep, some­what shameless and des­per­ate in­ten­sity that bird dis­plays of­ten ex­hibit, yet one in par­tic­u­lar equally has a de­light­ful grace and ret­i­cence – more bal­let than tango. The male ruf­fles many of its body feath­ers, runs in front of the fe­male, and then tilts to­wards her, drag­ging its half-open wing so that it just brushes the ground. It re­peats this stylised curt­sey­ing wing brush re­peat­edly, per­haps not sweep­ing her off her feet, but sweep­ing the floor around her. As men­tioned above, I have seen this a num­ber of times, and count it among the most de­light­ful of dis­plays you might see in Bri­tain in early spring. If you ever do catch up with it, the very thought that the Pheas­ant is some­how plas­tic or de­rived sud­denly seems ir­rel­e­vant. It’s an ex­otic dance, true, but also one that res­onates prim­i­tive wild­ness. No amount of pol­lut­ing by hu­mankind will ever change that. Ear tufts stick­ing up and look­ing his best, a male tries to woo a fe­male in one of the most beau­ti­ful courtship dances

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