Fowls and Pheasants: Phasianidae

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Fowls and pheasants measure 6 to 48 inches (15 to 125 centimeters) and weigh 1.5 to 24.2 pounds (0.7 to 11 kilograms). All species have a heavy, round body. Legs and neck are short, head and tail are small (except in a few long-tailed species), and facial ornamentation varies. Coloration of skin and plumage (feathers) also varies, but males are almost always the more colorful sex.


Fowls and pheasants are found throughout North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australasia.


Habitats vary widely for these birds. Some live in mountain regions, others in subtropical forests and rainforests. Still others prefer the grasslands.


Fowls and pheasants eat vegetation, buds, pine needles, roots, bulbs, seeds, fruits, invertebrates (animals without backbones) such as ants and termites, and berries. Baby snowcocks eat legumes (peas, beans, and lentils).


Regardless of species, the daily routine of these birds is basically the same. They roost (rest) in trees during the night and descend at dawn for some serious feeding time. After eating for a few hours, they head for cover. The end of the day brings about another feeding frenzy, after which birds call to one another as they prepare to roost for the night.

Because these birds are largely land dwellers, most species don't migrate (travel seasonally from one region to another) much. Species that live in the open grasslands are more social than their forest cousins, possibly to defend themselves against predators. Those social species can be found in flocks of twenty to one hundred individual birds.

Nests are shallow scrapes in the ground, lined with little vegetation and hidden by grasses or rocks. Clutch sizes can be as high as twenty eggs or as few as one. Incubation (keeping warm until hatching) is done by the female, and chicks leave the nest as soon as they hatch. First flight is taken in seven to ten days. Females are ready to mate at one year of age, but males tend to wait until their full adult colors have developed, usually in their second season.

Predators include foxes, ravens, badgers, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, hawks, owls, cats, dogs, and other medium-sized meat-eaters.


Phasianidae is arguably the most important bird family to the human population because they are hunted in the wild and raised domestically for their meat and feathers.


  • Ben Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be the national bird, not the bald eagle.
  • Despite being so huge, turkeys roost in trees at night.
  • Turkeys "dust off" their feathers by rolling in ant hills and decayed logs.
  • Male turkeys have beards.
  • Forty-nine states have spring wild turkey hunting seasons (Alaska doesn't have any wild turkeys).
  • Wild turkeys can run up to 12 miles per hour (19.3 kilometers per hour) for short distances.
  • They can fly at 55 miles per hour (88.5 kilometers per hour) for short distances.
  • Turkeys see in color.
  • Turkeys have heart attacks, as was proven when the U.S. Air Force was doing test runs to break the sound barrier. Wild turkeys nearby dropped dead.


Seventy-three species (41 percent of all species) are included on the 2003 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


Physical characteristics: Weighs 6.6 to 24.2 pounds (3 to 11 kilograms) and measures 30 to 49 inches (76 to 125 centimeters), with males larger than females. Females are dull in color, but males have bare blue and pink heads, red wattles, and dark plumage with metallic green and bronze highlights. Legs are pink.

Geographic range: Found in Mexico and the United States from Vermont to Florida and west to Washington, Oregon, and California.

Habitat: Though the wild turkey prefers a mix of hardwood forest and grassland, it can survive tropical forest and scrub areas.

Diet: The wild turkey eats leaves, shoots, seeds, buds, fruits, berries, grains, insects, spiders, and sometimes small vertebrates (animals with backbones). It searches for food by picking at the ground.

Behavior and reproduction: Wild turkeys live on home ranges that sometimes overlap. Each range has a male hierarchy as well as a female hierarchy, with the strongest of each sex at the top. They're vocal birds and have a wide variety of calls.

These birds are polygamous (puh-LIH-guh-mus; one male has several female mates). Mating takes place in the spring, and courtship includes strutting and gobbling by the males. Clutch sizes range from eight to fifteen eggs, and females incubate them for twenty-seven to twenty-eight days. Chicks fly for the first time between six and ten days, and they remain with the mother until the springtime. Predators include bobcats, foxes, and great horned owls.

Wild turkeys and people: These are popular game birds. Towns across America have turkey-calling contests.

Conservation status: Overhunting reduced the population dramatically in the early twentieth century, but careful conservation and management have successfully restored numbers. ∎


Physical characteristics: Small grouse weighing 0.9 to 1.8 pounds (0.4 to 0.8 kilograms) and measuring 14 to 17 inches (36 to 43 centimeters). Males have a rust-colored head and upperparts and a bright red "comb" over the eyes that is larger in spring and summer. Females are a little smaller than males, and both sexes are completely white in winter except for a black tail. Feet are covered in feathers, which helps them walk on snow.

Geographic range: The willow ptarmigan (TAR-mih-gun) is found in northern Asia and Europe, from Alaska into Canada.

Habitat: This bird prefers the tundra (treeless plain of arctic and subarctic regions) and the forest's edge as well as moist areas like pond edges and arctic valleys. Likes willow trees.

Diet: This species eats flowers, buds, and insects in the summer, willow and birch buds and twigs in winter, and berries in the fall.

Behavior and reproduction: Willow ptarmigans often sleep in snowbanks in winter, which they get to by flying, rather than walking, so as not to leave tracks for predators to follow. They live in large groups of both sexes in winter. Males are territorial in the spring and vocalize to set boundaries.

The willow ptarmigan is monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus; having just one mate) and each pair has its own territory. Nesting starts anywhere from April to June, depending on the latitude. The female lays eight to eleven eggs and incubates them for twenty-two days. Males keep newly hatched chicks warm. Chicks fly at the age of ten to twelve days. Families stay together until the fall.

Willow ptarmigans are hunted by foxes, martens, lynx, and wolves.

Willow ptarmigans and people: Popular hunting birds in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Finland, and Russia. Hunted in the United States and managed so that populations are sustainable. The willow ptarmigan is the Alaska state bird, and is the focus of stories, toys, and art in arctic cultures.

Conservation status: This bird is not threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Weighs 2.2 to 4.6 pounds (1 to 2.1 kilograms) and measures 22 to 28 inches (57 to 72 centimeters). Females are slightly smaller than males. Males have dark red underparts with blue facial skin. Brown plumage covers the lower back and rump.

Geographic range: The satyr tragopan lives in the central and eastern Himalayas.

Habitat: This bird lives in mountain forests at altitudes ranging between 5,900 and 14,100 feet (1,800 and 4,300 meters).

Diet: Eats bulbs, roots, and leaves as well as insects, sprouts, and seeds.

Behavior and reproduction: Unlike most pheasants, the satyr tragopan spends a great deal of time in the trees, and is most active during the day. Reported to be shy in the wild, these birds live in pairs or sometimes larger family groups. Males vocalize in what is considered to be a wail at dawn from April to June, a sign that breeding season is about to begin.

These birds are monogamous. Nests are made of sticks as high as 20 feet (6 meters) in trees. Clutch size is two to three eggs, and they are incubated for twenty-eight days.

Satyr tragopans and people: Himalayan forest conservation campaigns use this bird as a central figure.

Conservation status: Not currently listed as threatened by the IUCN. The satyr tragopan is still hunted in Nepal. ∎



Green-Armitage, Stephen. Extraordinary Pheasants. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002.

Madge, Steve, et al. Pheasants, Partridges, and Grouse: A Guide to the Pheasants, Partridges, Quails, Grouse, Guineafowl, Buttonquails, and Sandgrouse of the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Web sites:

"Gobble, Gobble, Gobble." Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. (accessed on June 9, 2004).

"Ptarmigans." Hinterland's Who's Who. (accessed June 9, 2004).

"Satyr-tragopan." Brno Zoo. (accessed on June 9, 2004).

"Wild Turkey." Bowhunting. (accessed on June 9, 2004).

"Wild Turkey." The Waldron Village News. (accessed on June 9, 2004).

"Willow Ptarmigan." NatureWorks. (accessed on June 9, 2004).

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Fowls and Pheasants: Phasianidae

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