The showy rooster ring-necked or common pheasant may be a namesake for the pheasant family, but there is a lot more to this family than pheasants.
A week or so ago, we saw a large, brown, leggy bird as we crossed the Ashton Bridge over the Henry’s Fork. She was picking up grit alongside the road and we immediately recognized her as a hen ring-necked pheasant (increasingly called the common pheasant).
Although pheasant numbers in Idaho have declined dramatically over the past 50 years, just about everyone recognizes this immigrant from China. Some even realize that every pheasant species is exotic to our side of the globe. What is lesser known is that the family, Phasianidae, is well represented throughout much of the Earth, including the New World. We don’t have native pheasants, but there are many other members of this large family.
Members of the Phasianidae family can be found worldwide except on the South American and Antarctic continents. Not only that, but they can be found clear up to the Arctic, almost to the North Pole, around the world. This is one highly diverse family, sporting 54 genera and at least 185 species.
This wasn’t always the case. Not so long ago, grouse, turkeys and junglefowl were all considered separate families. Genetic analysis has re-tied the family knots though and they are all now considered to have their roots in Phasianidae.
That means that North America is well represented in what is often considered an Old World family. We have many grouse species: ruffed, spruce, dusky, sooty, sharp-tailed and greater and Gunnison sage-grouse as well as rock, willow and white-tailed ptarmigan and greater and lesser prairie chickens along with wild turkeys.
It is interesting though, that although Old World quail are card-carrying members of Phasianidae, the New World quail; bobwhite, valley (California), Mearns, scaled, Gambel’s, Montezuma and mountain quail (Idaho’s only native quail) are all members of the family, Odontophoridae, not Phasianidae. And, while there are no native Phasianids in South America, there are around 15 species of New World quail (not listed above).
There isn’t one single, obvious or readily observable trait that identifies a member of Phasianidae. Some species are monogamous, but many are polygynous. Breeding strategies are highly variable from lekking to elaborate displays to rather sedate offerings. Males are often highly colored and display ornamentation such as brightly colored waddles, long tails, air sacs, eyebrows, throat lappets and more to impress females, especially in the polygynous species. The “tail” of a peafowl cock (peacock) is an example.
Food habits, while generally vegetarian, are variable, and some species are predatory. Chicks of most species are insectivorous, needing the protein for rapid growth. Almost all nest on the ground, but tragopans nest in trees. Family members vary in size from 1.5-ounce quail to male peafowl over 13 pounds and turkeys exceeding 20 pounds. Many, but not all, develop spurs on the back of their legs. You can find this family from the Arctic to the tropics, Africa to Asia. Most do have stout bills and feet and all are ground dwelling birds.
Many species of this family are popular gamebirds and have been transplanted around the world for sport hunting. The ring-necked (common) pheasant is one such species as are the chukar (Asia), gray partridge (Europe) and Himalayan snowcock (Asia).
Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) fame should have erected a huge bronze (or maybe gold) statue to a particular member of the family Phasianidae. The red junglefowl is the wild ancestor of the domestic chicken, by far the most important bird in all of agriculture. Wild turkeys are, of course, the progenitors of the domestic turkeys we so recently enjoyed at Thanksgiving.
If you are lucky enough to have a member of the Phasianidae family as the guest of honor at your Christmas dinner table, enjoy. You will be in good company.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho