As I sauntered along the Railroad Grade at Ives Run Recreation Area I was greeted by three male ring-necked pheasants. These birds seemed not too bothered by my presence. Maybe that's because they were raised at a game farm and very recently released here for the Autumn hunting season.
Regardless, they were beautiful; iridescent greenish-blue heads bordered by a bold white ring around the neck, blood-red faces, and goldish-brown body feathers with gray and black patterning. The long pointed tail and (upon close observation) small horn-like feather tufts on either side of the head make for a very interesting wild neighbor. I watched as these three meticulously picked for grit and grasshoppers along the gravel road.
Ring-necked pheasants are birds of field edges, hedge rows, and farm fields. They are an exotic (non-native) species native to the continent of Asia. Each year millions are raised from eggs at game farms then released to Game Lands to sustain the population in Pennsylvania.
I often ask myself though, why make so great an effort to maintain unstable populations of ring-necked pheasants when we are blessed with such fantastic native birds of field and forest as wild turkey and ruffed grouse?
I would pose the same question if populations of ruffed grouse were introduced in the home range of the ring-necked pheasant in East China.
It's a question for all of us, really. Why transport species of animals and plants to different places around the world without knowing the impact it will have on ecosystems that are new to it's presence?
A prime example is many of our own front yards. Why do we landscape using so many non-native and ornamental species when there are so many unique and beautiful native species to choose from that are inextricably connected with the wild spaces that surround us?
Sometimes when we choose to introduce an animal or plant that's native to a different part of the world it has a destructive impact on the ecological balance. Prime examples are European starling, house sparrow, Japanese knotweed, Autumn olive and multiflora rose.
But in the case of the ring-necked pheasant, not to worry. Not every exotic species is an invasive species. There is something very much to be appreciated about the ring-necked pheasant now that it’s here.
Considering the place in the world where this remarkable wild neighbor has evolved, as I stand here watching these three it's like catching a glimpse into East Asia. The only thing missing is a few oriental magpies, a Beijing babbler and the landscape as well as the complex ecosystem of East China. Okay, so maybe there is A LOT missing from an experience of a ring-necked pheasant that is akin to experiencing this species in its native context.
Still though, I do believe that to experience my wild neighbor the ring-necked pheasant at Ives Run Recreation Area, knowing what I know about it, does afford me a tiny yet significant glimpse into the wildlife of China.
The next time you encounter a ring-necked pheasant, I hope you may be transported to a far away place in your mind as I was.
Finding God, self, and community in wild spaces. The better we know our wild neighbors the more we'll discover ourselves.
A vision informed by Henry David Thoreau’s interpretation of sauntering, Jesus’ understanding of neighbor, Aldo Leopold’s concept of thinking like a mountain, Rachel Carson’s prophetic voice and John Muir’s way of capturing the beauty and uniqueness of wild neighbors with words.