On winter hikes in rural Carver County, I often see pheasant tracks in the snow. On rare occasions an individual bird might run or hit the sky.

The ring-necked pheasant is not a native bird but was introduced into the state in 1905, and many thousands were released between 1915 and the early 1920s.

The game birds have become established and are numerous in areas of southern Minnesota where they can find sufficient cover and food. The extended common name, Chinese ring-necked pheasant, tells us where they originated: Our pheasant is a hybrid whose original strain came from China. Pheasants are native to the older inhabited parts of the world, chiefly Asia where more than 100 species and many hybrids are found. Domesticated chickens all descended from pheasants.

Pheasants join in the fall and winter in flocks from three to more than 100 birds. They will feed and roost. The flock size is dependent upon the amount of food and suitable roosting cover. Roosts are usually in lowland swamps and marshes of cattails and other vegetation. A few birds will roost in trees.

Like a chicken, a pheasant is omnivorous, eating anything digestible. Insects make up a large part of its summer diet, but in the winter, weed seeds and grain, tree buds and small fruits left hanging on branches are targets. Pheasants get by on waste grain picked up in stubbly fields or along roads and railroad tracks. Pheasant flocks feed in the morning and early evening, but they stay in their roosts if the weather is severe.

Some other observations:

  • With a heart rate of about 700 pumps a minute, black-capped chickadees need to eat the equivalent of their own weight every day during the winter. Some chickadees will take seeds from human hands.
  • Acorns are the staff of life for many wildlife species including whitetail deer, all types of squirrels, raccoons, mice, and birds (such as wild turkeys and blue jays). No doubt the greatest value of acorns is in the critical winter season when other foods are scarce.
  • The snowshoe, about 6,000 years old, is holding its own in our complex, technical world. There is something in its simplicity and its closeness to nature that speaks to its increased use among people who attempt to live with nature and not subdue it.
  • Below-zero temperatures produce attractive frost patterns on window panes, with swirls and feathers, fronds and miniature forest scenes.

Jim Gilbert has taught and worked as a naturalist for more than 50 years.