Of the many reasons to chase pheasants in autumn, and the list is long, the explosion of these birds from cover at nearly incalculably rapid rates — the flush — is cited most often by hunters who wear out boot leather each fall pursuing Phasianus colchicus, the ring-necked pheasant.
That quest continues Saturday when Minnesota’s 2016 pheasant season opens at 9 a.m. It’s then that some 75,000 wingshooters will step into the state’s grasslands, roadsides and harvested corn and soybean fields, their shotguns loaded and their hopes high.
Ahead might scamper a dog or two, perhaps a Labrador, springer spaniel or German shorthair, each with its nose to the ground, scouring the hinterlands for their quarry’s scent.
Only the gaudy male pheasants, or roosters (also called cock birds), of the species are legal fare, and these florid specimens, with their red faces, iridescent blue-green necks accented by brilliant white rings, chestnut breasts, golden wings and long coppery tails, are readily distinguished from the duller, more buff-colored hens.
Doug Lovander of Willmar, Minn., and his two dogs, one an English pointer, the other an English setter, already are camped in South Dakota in a recreational vehicle, awaiting that state’s pheasant opener Saturday.
They’ve been in the Mount Rushmore State since Sept. 1, hunting sharp-tailed grouse.
Like tens of thousands of other uplanders, Lovander is drawn to prairie landscapes in autumn not only by the presence of game birds, but by the endorphin rush that attends long walks alongside his two canine buddies, Sam and Buster, beneath brilliantly azure skies.
As a bonus, sometimes at day’s end these hikes are punctuated by the distant yipping of coyotes and the otherworldly rising of a giant October hunter’s moon, against which, oftentimes in Minnesota and the Dakotas, skeins of migrating waterfowl are silhouetted.
Yet it’s the flush of the male pheasant, Lovander says, that really trips his trigger.
“Oftentimes a rooster will hold tight for a pointing dog, which instantly creates anxiety for the dog, the bird and the hunter,” Lovander said. “Ultimately the bird’s last, best hope of escaping the gun is the wild explosion of color and cackling it creates when flushing.
“You can experience this a thousand times over and it’s still unnerving. Which is why hunters who otherwise are excellent shots often miss pheasants.”
No choice but to fly
Given their druthers, most pheasants wouldn’t take wing in such circumstances. Nor would turkeys, grouse, quail, ptarmigan or partridge, each, like pheasants, a gallinaceous bird, as described by ornithologists.
Such fowl are ground dwellers with strong legs, which they often depend on to escape pursuers.
Yet when cornered, whether by a hunting dog or a more natural predator such as a fox or coyote, these birds oftentimes have no choice but to fly.
In such cases, when a rooster pheasant flushes, it sometimes cackles, while females, or hens, rise mute into the sky.
This distinction can be critical to hunters, such as when a rooster that is otherwise easily identified by its colorful plumage and long tail rises into bright sunlight, making it indistinguishable from a hen.
Or when the feathering of a late-hatched rooster is still developing, again giving it the appearance of a hen.
In both circumstances, if a hunter hears a bird cackle, it’s a confirmed rooster.
“That’s what happened to my son last weekend on the opening of the South Dakota pheasant season for residents,” said Dave Nomsen, a former Iowa Department of Natural Resources upland bird researcher who now is Pheasants Forever’s vice president for government affairs. He also directs the group’s regional office in Brookings, S.D.
“He flushed a bird that at first looked like a hen, but as it rose into the sky it cackled, and he shot it,” Nomsen said. “His friends said, ‘That was a hen!’ But when he got it in hand, they could see the coloring of the late-hatched rooster was still developing. It just wasn’t fully plumed.”
Whatever a pheasant’s coloring, as it flushes, the tips of its relatively small wings reverse themselves during the upstroke, helping it to accelerate. The ringneck’s respiration also speeds up, as it breathes in at the end of each upstroke and exhales at the end of each downstroke.
All of this, of course, is but a blur to the hunter, whose own heart and respiration rates doubtless quicken as a pheasant flushes.
Yet woe to the scattergunner who dallies at this moment, because in the split second it takes him or her to shoulder a 12-, 16- or 20-gauge, a pheasant can reach speeds of up to 45 miles per hour.
Airborne, a rooster will beat its wings three times per second.
Yet a pheasant won’t fly far: Its relatively low ratio of wing area to body weight — a rooster tips a scale at between 2 and 3 pounds, while hens weigh about 2 pounds — explains in part why flushed ringnecks often travel less than one-half mile before landing.
By comparison, ducks and geese can in some instances fly hundreds of miles nonstop. Such daylong jaunts are fueled by aerobic metabolism, meaning waterfowl’s red muscles burn oxygen that is continually fed through an intricate web of blood vessels.
By contrast, a pheasant’s white muscles are metabolized anaerobically. Rather than oxygen, they burn glycogen, the supply of which must be restocked after a pheasant flushes and successfully concludes a commuter-length flight.
“The same is true for ruffed grouse, which, like pheasants, also are white-meated, and which, also like pheasants, provide excellent table fare,” Nomsen said. “If you flush a ruffed grouse repeatedly, they can hardly get off the ground until they’ve rested.”
Saturday, after wearing out boot leather in pursuit of just one more flushing pheasant, and one more after that, and perhaps one more still, many hunters — exhausted but happy — will know the feeling.