The incredible golden pheasant is a sight to behold. With a vivid golden head and crest, bright red breast and multicoloured plumage of green, blue, brown and yellow, the males of the species are some of the most striking birds on the planet.
The females have a more subtle colouring, with dark bars all over their bodies, which allows them to better blend in and hide from predators. Both sexes have an interesting history and are beloved by avian admirers all over the world.
Want to learn more? Here are 20 neat facts about this technicolour bird.
1. No One Knows How Many There Are
They originate from the mountainous regions of central China. Their natural habitat is dense thickets, scrub and bushes, where they can be difficult for predators like humans to find. Even with the male’s bright colouring, they can be hard to spot. This makes it tough to estimate their populations in the wild.
2. Female Birds are Hardly Ever Captured in the Wild
This bird is extremely shy and prefers taking cover in the underbrush during the day. Their long legs are especially suited to moving quickly through underbrush. In the wild, golden pheasants roost high up in the trees at night. Their more isolated habitat and great hiding skills make them elusive to study and to capture.
3. They’re Lighter Than They Look
They only weigh between 550 and 700 grams. While the boys can be almost 4 feet long, and the girls a little over 2 feet, much of that length is in their tail, so they don’t weigh very much at all.
4. The Males Use a Cape to Court the Females
When males want to impress the ladies, they fluff up their feathers and spread their ruff over their faces. This creates a Phantom of the Opera style cape. You can check out this video from Zoo Atlanta to get a little sample of the courtship display. The full display can actually last 2 hours.
5. They May Have Been the Original Phoenix
It’s been suggested that the Golden pheasant is the inspiration for the Chinese phoenix, or fenghuang, a sacred mythological animal who was said to help create the world. In legend, the phoenix rules over other birds, symbolizing grace and also virtue. Unlike the Egyptian phoenix, the Chinese phoenix is made of many animals. That’s thought to be a reflection of the appearance of the many-coloured pheasant.
6. They Only Lay Eggs Once or Twice a Year
Unlike other kinds of pheasants, who lay eggs through the spring and summer, and unlike chickens, who can lay eggs year-round, golden pheasants lay their eggs in April. They’ll lay anywhere from 5-12 eggs and incubate them for about 3 weeks. In captivity, if the eggs are taken away, they’ll lay a second clutch.
7. You Can Find Them in Hawai’i Now
They’re an introduced species in Hawai’i. Researcher R.L. Hammond has tracked their population growth and movements in the state. He says they were probably released in the mid-1990s at Waikamoi Preserve, and that there’s evidence to suggest they’ve established a small but successful breeding population in the Preserve. They’ve since been found at a few different locations around Maui.
8. They’re Terrible at Flying
Despite a wingspan of over 2 feet, they’re not very good at sustained flight. Instead, they go in for short bursts of flight when they need to get away from predators or find a roost at night. Their preferred method of evading predators, however, is to run on their long legs. This inability to fly far or fast has made them easier for humans to keep.
9. Artists Love Them
These gorgeous birds have a long history in Chinese art. Popular in painting, on porcelain and woven into textile decorations, the golden pheasant has been a common subject of artworks for thousands of years. The golden pheasant is especially popular in works collected by royalty, courtiers and high-ranking civil officials. A Golden Pheasant Resting on Hibiscus Branch, attributed to the Song dynasty artist Zhao Ji, is one such masterpiece.
10. Colonialism Brought Them to the World
Golden pheasants were probably first imported to Britain and to the U.S. in the middle of the 18th century. While the exact history of their movements is murky, it’s clear that by the end of the 18th century they were present on various estates in Europe, Britain and America. In the U.S., George Washington owned a pair and kept them at Mount Vernon.
11. The Golden Pheasant is the Bird of Royalty
In China, monarchs and high-ranking officials kept these pheasants in their gardens, much like peacocks. As the pheasant moved across the world to Britain and other parts of the globe, they were kept on upper-class estates, sometimes as sporting birds for hunting. Most, however, were kept as ornamental birds.
12. They Go by Many Names
The name “Golden Pheasant” applies to birds living in the wild. Birds that have been bred in captivity are usually called “Red Golden” pheasants. These birds are also sometimes called “Chinese Pheasants.”
Breeding programs have produced different plumage colours, as well as hybrids when Golden pheasants are crossed with Lady Amherst’s pheasants. Mutations include the Yellow Golden, Cinnamon Golden and Dark-Throated Golden, all of which have different colour variations.
13. You Can Find Wild Golden Pheasants Across the Globe
There are many populations of feral pheasants around the world. Their popularity as an ornamental bird means that there have been a lot of escapees over the years. In Britain, they were often released on estates in the late 1800s. Nowadays you can now find them living free in many parts of the Americas, Europe and Australia.
14. They’re Expensive
You can buy a golden pheasant, but get ready to shell out for one. A purebred golden pheasant can go for a few hundred dollars a bird. To put that in context, a more common chicken, like the Plymouth Rock, can go for around $3 a chick.
15. They’re Not Really Domesticated
Even though people have bred and kept these birds in captivity for centuries, they’re not considered domesticated. They’re considered a semi-domesticated bird. This might come as a surprise to those who own Red Golden pheasants, since those birds are often tame enough to sit on their owners’ shoulders and take treats from their hands.
16. They Make Good Backyard Birds
People who keep these pheasants report that they’re very easy to keep. They’re cold-hardy, so they don’t need lots of extra attention in the winter. People who own them say they’re easy to get along with, peaceful with other birds and don’t need a huge range in order to be happy.
17. Only One Other Species on the Planet Has a Ruff Like They Do
There are only two species of pheasants that have a ruff like golden pheasants do. The other species is the Lady Amherst’s pheasant (Chrysolophus amherstiae). These are the only two species in the genus Chrysolophus.
The two have strikingly different colouration, however, with Lady Amherst’s pheasants sporting a black and white striped tail, white, green and blue feathers, a red crest and a barred white cape.
18. You Can Tell Juveniles Apart by Their Eyes
When they’re a few months old, male eye-colour will change to a pale green or yellow hue, and female eyes to a dark brown. This makes it much easier for people who raise these birds to know the sex early on. Males only get their full bright colouring when they’re 2 years old, although juveniles will start to develop their colours in their first year.
19. The Male’s Colours Will Fade in the Sun
The birds are meant to live in shady conditions, deep in the forest undergrowth, but in captivity they live lives that are much more in the open. People who keep golden pheasants often suggest providing the birds a lot of shade options, not just for the birds’ comfort, but so that their colourful feathers will stay bright.
20. This is One Species That Isn’t Threatened
Unlike many of the world’s bird species, the golden pheasant isn’t endangered. The International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists it in its category of “Least Concern.” This means that despite global deforestation and human encroachment, populations are healthy and not considered vulnerable.
If you love this kind of bird and you’re thinking of keeping one yourself, know that it’s no small commitment. While golden pheasants live only 5 or 6 years in the wild, in captivity they can live for 15 or 20 years.
If you want to spot them in the wild, the best places to see them in Britain are south of Thetford and around Dersingham Bog. In the U.S., your best bet is to head to Maui. In China, Birdfinding.info suggests “Sichuan, Wolong and Tangjiahe Nature Reserves; in Shaanxi, Foping Nature Reserve, Gumuping, and Baishizhen (all in Yangxian County); and in Henan at Guo Bei Shi.” Enjoy your birdwatching quest for this elusive but amazing pheasant!