Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Melanistic Pheasants

The town where I live is known to have a population of wild melanistic ring-necked pheasants.  I didn't know about this until after I'd joined a local bird watching group on Facebook - a benefit of getting to know some local people who were knowledgeable about such things.  I saw my first pheasant soon after moving here this past summer, but it was a normal one, and I didn't really expect to see the melanistic ones.  Much to my surprise, they have become regular visitors!

Here is a standard coloured ring-necked pheasant (male).  You can see the dark copper tone on his chest leading to lighter coloured copper with black tips on the sides.  There is a light patch on the lower wing in almost a light grey tone.  He has a bright white collar with a dark green and blue iridescent head.

This is a partly melanistic male.  Some melanistic males (especially those bred in pheasant hatcheries) are almost completely black.  This is a wild melanistic male, and he has no sign of the usual copper colour on his chest and wings.  His chest has green and purple iridescence and he has a similar head feathering as the normal pheasant, but a bit darker.  He still maintains the white collar feathering.  You can see that his back feathers are a more olive-toned brown, compared to the red brown of the standard male pheasant.

Here is an even more striking melanistic mutant that recently visited.  As you can see, he is almost completely lacking the white collar - there are just a few hints of white around his neck.  The bands of colour patterns on his wing and back feathers are much more detailed than on the regularly coloured male pheasant.

Melanism is a genetic mutation that causes birds to have excess amounts of melanin in the feathers, causing darker pigments than usual.  Leucism is the opposite condition - a lack of pigment causing very pale feathers.  Melanistic pheasants are available from some hatcheries, but the ones visiting me are a locally-based group of wild pheasants.  We do not have any pheasant hatcheries in this area.

Because of inter-breeding between the regular coloured pheasants, there is a range of colour variation in the pheasants I have visiting my yard.  In the fall, I noticed a female pheasant with a troop of youngsters and I was intrigued by the fact that all her young appeared to be male (due to the red on their faces) but their feathering showed different colouring, more than I would have expected for adolescent birds at different stages of moulting.  Here is a photo of the adult female (in the rear) with two of the variant coloured young males.

As you can see, this young male is lighter coloured overall, with more light coloured edging on his feathers.  I might have thought he was a female, but the red on the face is a give-away.

This young male, by contrast, has darker lacing and darker overall feather tones.  I am sure these youngsters have become some of the adults now visiting.

They tend to feed under my bird feeder where the other birds drop seed.  I have been putting out some chicken feed pellets that I had on hand as well, to support them during this winter weather when there is a lot of snow cover and possibly limited feed available.  This has given me some good opportunities to photograph them.  My photographs are all taken through the windows of my home office, so the pictures aren't always as clear as I would like, but it has provided me a chance to get some good close-up shots of plumage variation.

Here you can see the significant difference between a regular male (right) and a melanistic male (left) feeding at the same time.  They almost look like two different species!

Note that the photographs I am sharing often have the tails cropped out.  This is because there is very little difference in the long tail feather colour, and my objective with this post is to demonstrate the difference in feather colours on the body and head of the birds.  These aren't "great" pheasant photographs - they are expressly chosen to demonstrate the plumage differences.

The difference is also evident in the female pheasants.  Here is a picture of a standard coloured female.

Here is a melanistic female.

Here they are together.

You can see significant differences with the edges of the wings in particular.  Here is the comparison of the standard female's back, showing her wing edges.

The melanistic female, by comparison, has far less delineation of the wing edges, because the pale edging is absent.

I'll share several more images of some of the different individuals who are currently visiting my yard. If you take the time to look closely, you will see significant variation in the patterning within the feathers, as well as in the colours.  I am sure that the continued breeding of these pheasants will result in many beautiful variants for birders in my area to enjoy over time.

This individual has much lighter and more significant patterning on many of his wing feathers, extending to some of the chest feathers.

This one retains some copper tones, but is still darker than normal.

The differences show very starkly when the variants are next to each other.  I notice that the "normal" coloured ones seem to show some aggression or dominance towards the variants.

These two appear to have the standard colouring at first glance, but notice how the one on the left has much more patterning on the 'shoulder' feathers and a darker copper colour on the chest.

This is one of my favourites.  His feathers are like jewels in the sun, but I haven't managed to get a good photograph of him in the sun yet.

Amazing!  Look at those feather patterns!  He's absolutely stunning!

A last shot of the darkest one to visit so far.

Sharing with Wild Bird Wednesday.  I haven't had many birds to share in recent months with the winter being upon us and the variation in birds being quite low at this time of year, but I felt these pheasants were worth showcasing.


Michelle said...

We don't have native pheasants here, and haven't seen the introduced ringneck in a few years at least. Your photos are a treat!

KathyB. said...

Beautiful ! I appreciate your detailed photographs with commentary on the birds. I had not though about putting out chicken feed pellets for pheasants but will now consider that for our wild pheasant population, Thank-you.

Crazy Lady with purple fingers said...

Love the pictures of your pheasant friends, they are so beautiful. Enjoy your photos! This winter so far even with all the trees in the yard we have not had many birds except for the Magpies! We have one lone Dove and one lone Blue Jay who try to sneak into the feeder before the bully Magpies come swooping in.

Pamela Gordon said...

I found your post on the NB Birding page on Facebook. It is very interesting and your photos are excellent, even through the window. We had a group of pheasants wander through our back yard in the fall and I'd never seen them before. I got some pics from a distance through the window so they aren't great but I posted them to the birding page. They certainly are beautiful birds in their varying colour combinations.

porkpal said...

Gorgeous photos! Thank you for the pheasant tutorial.