This superb gamebird will light up any aviary, says BILL NAYLOR – just leave room for its tail!
Big, bold and beautiful would be an appropriate description of the Reeves’s pheasant (Syrmaticus reevesii). More golden in colour than the golden pheasant, the feathers of the body are edged in black, giving the impression it is armour-plated. The male’s impressive tail can be four times the length of the body. Tails of 2m (6ft 6in) have been recorded, longer than a peacock’s train, but the average length is a “mere” 1.6m (5ft 3in). As with most pheasants, the tail and other plumage improve with age.
It is a hardy bird, and as such it has been introduced into a number of countries, with free-breeding colonies in Britain and America. The Reeves’s pheasant is extremely tough and in its native China it prefers pine forests in mountainous areas, and is at home at 915m (3,000ft) and higher.
Its aviary needs to be spacious enough for the male’s plumage to be appreciated and to allow room for him to move around without damaging his tail. A roosting perch should have the appropriate diameter and enough clearance at the rear to allow for the tail. In exposed locations, if perches are taken down in winter, the birds will roost in a shelter with straw. A few flat rocks in the aviary will help keep the nails worn, which is important since in some individuals they can become overgrown.
When introduced to new areas it will often drive out the common pheasant, and kept as a liberty bird it may do the same to guinea-fowl and even peafowl. These pheasants eat acorns, seeds, berries and invertebrates.
The sight of any other male pheasant during the breeding season will drive it to distraction. And it may need to have the sides of its pen screened, as is the norm with aggressive pheasants. If not, he will constantly fight the wire and damage his feathers in his vain attempt to sort out the flashy neighbour. They have a reputation, along with silver pheasants, of being aggressive to humans when breeding, and wild birds have attacked hunters and walkers. But so, too, have the rogue common ring-necked pheasants and cockerels.
Individuals vary: some may be aggressive to human, others not. If yours happens to be one of the former, understandably it’s awkward getting in and out of an aviary in a suit of armour, so you might prefer to arm yourself with a soft broom or rubber dustbin lid when visiting Mr Reeves. Once a stroppy cock pheasant has jousted a couple of times with a broom, he realises he’s not going to effortlessly kick you out of the aviary, and begrudgingly will tolerate your daily visits.
If space allows, a male can be run with two or three hens, which is preferable to a single hen, as he may focus too much attention on her. It’s best to avoid running them with hens of other species because they may hybridise, which they will do with the common ring-necked pheasant, in captivity and in the wild.
During the courtship display the male shows off his plumage and its colours to greatest advantage by fluffing up the neck feathers, slanting the sides of his body and spreading the tail so that the sun reflects the colours. He then dashes in front of the hen diagonally in short runs letting out a high-pitched call.
The nest is a typical pheasant nest, a shallow hollow among grass or bushes. A clump of box, privet, or other non-toxic evergreen will entice them to lay – not that they need a lot of encouragement.
The six to eight dull olive or buff eggs are incubated for 24-25 days, they normally breed in April, but can continue breeding into mid-summer. Hens will rear their own chicks safely, but if chicks are reared away from their parents it’s not safe to raise them with other species of chicks, they can be aggressive to other species from an early age. They should also be given plenty of space to prevent bullying. The youngsters are quite tough, but must not be allowed to get wet in the first few days.
Outside the breeding season, these pheasants congregate in family parties, when the male’s aggression seems to fade away, before assembling a harem of hens again in the spring.
There are many more Reeves’s pheasants in captivity than there are in the wild. Deforestation has reduced the wild population to about 2,000 birds. Although there are no geographical races, there are differences between individuals.
These are for pheasant enthusiasts, who have the space, and don’t mind a bird with attitude, you won’t regret keeping Reeves’s.
Bill Naylor has worked in aviculture and ornithology for more than 40 years, including working in zoos, birds gardens and museums in the UK and overseas.