There are few more colorful birds in America than the ring-necked pheasant.
It is not native, but the person who introduced this vibrant bird to the U.S. should, in my opinion, receive some recognition.
Pheasants are farm country birds. During winter, they prefer to inhabit a mix of cropland — especially corn and soybeans — plus grassland and other native habitat like cattail sloughs, woodlots and shelter belts. When the snow is deep, pheasants often find crop residue on the high spots in harvested grain fields where the wind has blown the snow away. They spend most of the day in nearby cover, coming out to feed mostly early and late in the day.
Ring-necked pheasants are wary birds; they make difficult photo subjects, so a bit of forethought and preparation is needed.
On a February day during a particularly severe winter, I spotted a group of ringnecks feeding in a picked cornfield just before sunset. I watched them from the comfort of my warm vehicle. As the sun neared the western horizon, the small flock of about a dozen birds — both hens and roosters — meandered slowly along a windblown portion of the cornfield, scratching here and there for kernels of corn. Then the birds disappeared into a cattail slough where they would roost through the cold night.
I had a plan.
The next day I placed a tent-style blind about 20 yards from the spot where the pheasants had entered the marsh. A profusion of pheasant tracks, old and new, verified this would be a good location. I gave the birds a few days to become accustomed to my blind.
Then one sunny but cold afternoon, I entered the blind. I arrived early, ahead of the birds. I set up my camera gear and sat back to wait. As the winter sun began to set, it cast a warm yellow light over the landscape.
Now if only the pheasants would show up.
The cold was starting to penetrate my bulky clothing when a big gaudy rooster popped out of the cattails. The colorful bird, its iridescent plumage glowing in the waning daylight, glanced around, but paid scant attention to my blind. Moments later, more pheasants appeared — a total of five: two hens and three roosters.
At the sound of my camera's shutter, the birds lifted their heads, standing tall and alert. I though they might run for cover, but they went about their business of gathering supper before nightfall.
Although it was midwinter and the pheasant breeding season was a few months away, the roosters, red facial wattles glowing, occasionally halted feeding and made advances toward the hens.
It was a memorable afternoon, and I was rewarded with a number of quality images.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.