Are hen pheasants poor mothers? Mike Swan says no
Hen pheasants are traditionally painted as poor mothers but this is very unfair, argues Mike Swan, pointing to extraneous factors
“Hen pheasants are useless mothers” — I have often heard those words, but are they true? This view certainly has a long history, and way back in 1895, the Rev HA Macpherson said they were “careless, clumsy mothers” in the Fur, Feather and Fin Series: Pheasants. A similar view was propounded by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald in his 1953 book British Game, one of the first in the highly regarded New Naturalist series. He suggested the effects of generations of hand-rearing as a cause of this supposed decline of parenting ability.
But have we really bred the mothering ability out of our pheasants? It is certainly the case that they are much less obviously defensive of their broods than the likes of red grouse and grey partridges. These two species remain together as a pair to raise their young, using distraction displays to draw danger and perhaps even attack any intruder. This apparent bravery never ceases to draw admiration from onlookers, with their very human view of what good parenting should look like.
A hen pheasant, on the other hand, is on her own from the start of incubation, so one parent attacking an intruder while the other tries to hide the brood is not an option. Rather, her strategy is to melt into cover as unobtrusively as she can, with her chicks following quickly behind. Does this mean that Mrs Pheasant is a less good mother? I say no, it is just a different strategy evolved for single parents.
So, what are the main differences between reared and wild birds? Back in the 1980s, I fell for a Scots lassie called Maureen Woodburn, who had come to the GWCT to study the differences between reared and wild pheasants and their ability to reproduce. Our courtship involved me becoming a radio tracker’s assistant, which turned out to be a double success in that Mo and I are still very much together, and I also learned a good deal about pheasants along the way.
To clarify definitions, and with wing tags fitted to all the birds released on her study area, we took it that any untagged birds were ‘wild’, even if one or both parents may have been hand-reared. One of the first things to come out from this work was that, on average, the wild hens were fledging about twice as many young.
Using radio collars, and tracking them day and night, including getting triangulations on roost sites so that we could collect chick poo for dietary analysis, gave huge insights into what was going on. I remember, for example, walking up to one newly hatched hen in broad daylight. We were able to catch her easily because she just could not fly, having lost so much condition during incubation that she was razor thin.
A hen in this condition is physically incapable of being a good mother, no matter how good her instincts — she needs to rebuild body condition to be able to brood her young, so her first priority is to find food for herself, rather than a good place for the family. Another hen illustrated this beautifully. Having hatched her eggs in a wheat field, she headed straight to a nearby laying pen for some pellets. Here, the keeper’s pheasants did what comes naturally and ate her chicks, just as they would mice or voles.
Hens are programmed to lose condition through incubation because they cannot take sufficient time off from sitting to eat enough to maintain body weight; the whole process is a finely tuned balance. Any extraneous factor that adds to the pressure can upset that, and the legacy of the rearing field seems to do so. Gut development in birds fed on compounded rations is different from that acquired on a wild diet. Also, parasite burdens are generally higher, and any disease outbreaks can leave the gut physically damaged, even if the victims recover well. Add in a possible lowered resistance to challenge from parasitic worms in spring, and the average hand-reared bird starts off with quite significant disadvantages.
Food can help to mitigate this, so we tried supplementary feeding. Providing plenty of hoppers filled with wheat to act as a calorie top-up was beneficial to both reared and wild hens, translating into much better hatch rates, as well as more second attempts when a first nest was lost. This is part of the reason that the
Code of Good Shooting Practice says we should spring feed “until adequate natural food is available, normally to the end of May”.
Another common observation is that even when a pheasant hatches, her brood dwindles away quickly, and again she is accused of poor motherhood. The truth is that she is probably doing her best in a very difficult environment.
Chicks hatch with a bit of yolk sac still present; enough to last two or three days. During this time, the mother must lead them to a safe place that is rich in creepy crawlies to feed on — if she fails, they will starve.
In my first summer at the GWCT, one of my colleagues reported on two radio-tracked hens on the same farm. One set off into the wheat and rape fields, which made good cover but were weed free and largely barren of suitable insects. She went far and wide searching for chick food, and her whole brood died in days. The other hen happened to stumble into an acre patch of weeds, which was clearly well supplied with what she needed. As a result, she went almost no distance each day, and still had a healthy brood when the radio battery ran out after a month.
In today’s world, with farming yet more intensive, finding a good brood-rearing habitat is even harder for the hen that successfully hatches. So, anyone who is serious about wild lowland game needs to think hard about providing dedicated brood-rearing habitat, probably through a Countryside Stewardship scheme. Unharvested cereal crops are ideal, and wild bird seed options have great potential too, provided the right crops are chosen — they will work for red-legged and grey partridges as well as pheasants.
Learning from parents
How birds react to danger is partly instinct, but often reinforced by parents. An early GWCT experiment with grey partridges illustrates this well. Allowing greys to rear their young in captivity requires dedication, but when we compared them with brooder-hut greys and even those reared under bantams, very different behaviour patterns emerged. In simple terms, real parents reinforced good behaviour, improving survival chances, but bantam foster mums were a poor substitute. Being of jungle fowl origin, they did not reinforce the right things for an open-country bird. Those who want to bring back greys should bear this in mind.
Restoring wild stock
With current issues over the interruption of supply of birds for releasing, there is much discussion about how to improve wild production, and many will
be hoping for a bonus this year. As Richard Negus has said (Reasons to be cheerful, 29 June), the omens are promising so far, at least in the south and east of England, with mild and reasonably dry weather offering what should be great conditions for wild pheasants and partridges, and I certainly have high hopes for the home shoot in Dorset.
But please be clear, good wild pheasant and partridge production does not come free. There must be good habitat to shelter game over winter, plenty of nesting cover and rigorous predation control to protect your birds. You also need a decent food supply to keep adults strong and healthy, and insect-rich brood covers, where parents feel safe with their young. None of this is up for negotiation — you cannot argue with the needs and instincts of your birds.
Lastly, if you want wild game, be gentle. Harvests must be modest, and it is rare indeed that you can afford to shoot even 30% of the autumn stock. Going wild also takes time, and you are likely to need to live with a season or two with not much shooting while you improve your habitat and gradually enhance the resilience and, therefore, the mothering ability of your birds. You need to be a bit esoteric to appreciate all this, but the rewards are tremendous.