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.
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