I have developed a rather morbid fascination lately. I count the number of carcasses I can spot littering the road side during my twice daily school run. Specifically, pheasant carcasses, because they are the ones I see most often. My record was 8 in a 5m stretch of country lane. I find their limp rag doll bodies so sad; feathers frayed, buffeted by vehicles. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I wonder if any other animal ended up dead by the road as often, there wouldn’t be some sort of outcry? To me, they are a disturbing symbol of our disposable lifestyles.
A survey called Operation Splatter conducted between 2013-2016 by Cardiff and Exeter Universities discovered that pheasants accounted for 38.1% of all reported road kill birds. They asked members of the public to report all animal species being killed to produce a ‘roadkill map’ for the UK. Possibly they are the most reported because they are most recognisable.
Apparently I am right in thinking the number of corpses is increasing. In the last 50 years the number of pheasants raised in captivity for shooting has vastly increased. Whilst they used to be largely ‘wild’ birds, now about 35 million captive bred birds are released from their pens between September and November and disperse around the countryside (of which about 15 million are shot).
If you’ve ever watched a pheasant try and cross a road you’ll understand why they are so often hit by cars. They deploy one of several tactics; playing chicken by running for it headlong as the vehicle approaches; potter across like an old lady pulling a shopping trolley then suddenly turn back from whence they have come as if they have forgotten something; or stand stock still until they attempt an ungainly and seemingly gravity-defying vertical takeoff making you duck inside the car, usually with a hoarse cry of alarm (the pheasant not you).*
It’s not just that their overall numbers have increased, but their very natures, by being bred in captivity, are altered, leaving them ill-prepared for the UK’s busy roads. Pheasants are already small-brained but being raised without parents in captivity means they don’t learn; they have poorer spatial memory and are weaker flyers than those born in the wild. In addition they are birds that live in linear environments, along hedgerows and edges of woodland, so they are drawn to roadside verges.
Pheasants are not native to the UK and their historical origins of pheasants in Europe are unknown, but we do know that they were imported around the time of the Romans from the area known today as Georgia. The pheasant we see in our lanes and woods today are a polymorphic species; a mix of several breeds including the Chinese ring necked pheasant, the green necked pheasant from Japan and the black Mongolian pheasant.
The iridescent heads and white collars of these males make them look like dandy Edwardian gentleman, with their chestnut plumage of puffed out chests and black and white markings, tail held high. The females are far more dowdy, but thats handy for camouflage as a ground nesting bird. You often hear them before you see them, with the rhythmic whirring of their feathers as they strut their territory or their strained rough cok-cok calls. Danny the Champion of the World was always a favourite Dahl story.
For all this death, the carcasses seem to disappear pretty rapidly – the cadavers are food for carrion crows and other raptors. And of course there are those humans willing to eat roadkill (waste not want not) if the meat is fresh enough. Personally, I’ve never been tempted but prefer to buy my pheasants from reliable sources because I do like a pot-roast pheasant. If this post hasn’t left you feeling a bit squeamish, my favourite recipe can be found here: Pot Roast Pheasant with Chorizo and Butterbeans
I was out running recently when from a ploughed field 6 burly pheasants took off and flew overhead in formation like chinooks, their wings humming like the blades. They startled me briefly but there was something quite thrilling about the moment. They may be common and they may be stupid but actually I quite like our funny little pheasants; just not splattered all over the road.
*Update – new tactic witnessed today – just run down the road in front of the car and hope it eventually stops chasing you.