The pheasant has been called the most sly fowl a hunter and his dog ever faced. It will sit silent and unseen in the tall grass, intently listening. When it feels threatened, the pheasant can run well, staying low and weaving right and left to evade pursuers. If this escape plan does not work, the pheasant will “explode” straight into the air, often startling its pursuer enough to win precious getaway time. Because of its evasiveness, the pheasant became a favorite game bird of the ancient Greeks and Romans. As the Roman Empire spread, pheasants were transplanted into new locations, readily adapting to almost every new territory, climate, and sportsman they encountered. In the late nineteenth century, turkeys, ruffed grouse, and other North American game birds were nearing extinction. When a small number of pheasants were introduced in Oregon, their adaptability and reproductive efficiency allowed them to quickly multiply. Thus, the pheasant took some of the hunting pressure off their native feathered friends and gave hunters a new challenge. “Ring-necked Pheasant” is a collective name for a number of subspecies and their crossbreeds.
The Pheasant Radar System
During World War I, several species of birds were enlisted to assist the war effort, including homing pigeons and the parrots at the Eiffel Tower. Not as well-known—but equally as useful—pheasants served with particular distinction by giving early warning. Not only were pheasants alert with their sharp ears, but they could also detect the slightest vibrations through the ground, such as the footfall of distant armies or the pounding of artillery. On January 24, 1915, a flock of pheasants reportedly “shrieked themselves hoarse,” raising alarm over the naval battle at Dogger Bank, 216 miles away.
Pheasants Guard Their Alertness
The pheasant’s ear holes are covered with small feathers called auriculars. These auricular feathers cover the bird’s ears without obstructing the bird’s hearing. Most bird feathers have hundreds of tiny barbules on each barb. These barbules hook together much like Velcro®, bonding the separate barbs of a feather into a surface that is flexible and virtually impervious to water and air. The auriculars that cover the pheasant’s ear holes, however, do not have these barbules. Thus, they protect the ears from injury, but they do not obstruct sound waves from traveling to the ears. If the auricular feathers ever do muffle a pheasant’s hearing, the pheasant can raise the feathers over its ears to allow maximum alertness for the slightest sounds.