When people think about birds humans still eat, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese are the most likely mentioned. They know other birds may have been eaten before the agricultural revolution started over 10,000 years ago, but they would probably think that people in so-called civilised societies have now switched to domesticated versions of birds, who grow bigger and faster. Although in numbers, and general terms, this may be true, other birds who were regularly eaten thousands of years ago continue to be eaten today in significant numbers, even in countries with a huge chicken factory farming industry.
These “traditionally eaten” birds are still eaten today, even if they have not really been domesticated as chickens and geese have because people have found other ways to exploit them if they keep them wild that may be even more lucrative than just breeding them for food. Those who farm them have found a way to charge not just for their flesh, but also for their lives. They charge customers for killing them themselves, rather than pay a slaughterhouse to kill them for the farmers. Killing them without having to follow any of the animal welfare regulations aimed to minimise the suffering of animals slaughtered by the animal agriculture industry. Killing them for fun, for so-called “sport”—blood “sport”, to be precise.
These unfortunate birds are the pheasants, which are one of the world’s most hunted birds. Many people know they are the targets of hunters who shoot animals for fun, but not many know these targeted birds (and their cousins the partridges) were bred on factory farms and then released to be killed by paying shooters. There is such a thing as pheasant farming, and this is what we will be discussing in this article.
Who Are the Pheasants
Pheasants are birds closely related to chickens as both belong to the order Galliformes (meaning “chicken-like”) and the family Phasianidae. This is the family of heavy, ground-living birds, which includes pheasants, partridges, junglefowl, chickens, turkeys, Old World quail, and peafowl. Many of these are the targets of shooters who shoot for sport, who often call them “game birds” (but vegans reject such speciesist language).
This family is divided into two sub-families, the Rollulinae and Phasianinae, with the latter including grouse, turkeys, and pheasants. All pheasants are characterised by strong sexual dimorphism (males with bright colours and adornments such as wattles, are bigger than females, and have longer tails). They eat mostly seeds, grains, roots, and berries, and sometimes also insects, fresh green shoots, spiders, earthworms, and snails. They are originally from Eurasia, but now you can find them all over the world.
There are many genera and species of pheasant, but the most common one, and the one that has been farmed is the common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), sometimes also called in America Ring-Necked Pheasant. This is native to Asia and the northern foothills of the Caucasus and the Balkans, but after being widely introduced elsewhere as a bird to shoot for sport, it has now naturalised in many other places (so much, that it is the state bird of South Dakota, one of only two US state birds who are not of a species native to the United States). The green pheasant (P. versicolor) of Japan is sometimes considered a subspecies of the common pheasant.
The males of common pheasants could be from nearly white to almost black, but chestnut-brown is the most common colour. However, the plumage is not uniform and varies between sub-species. The Southern Caucasian pheasants (P. c. colchicus) are the most typical of all and have bars of bright gold or fiery copper-red with iridescent sheen of green and purple. The head is bottle green with a small crest and distinctive red wattle. The female and juveniles have duller mottled brown plumage. There are about 30 subspecies in five to eight groups that show different plumage.
Common pheasants live in woodland, farmland, scrub, and wetlands, with their preferred natural habitat being grassland near the water with small copses of trees. Outside the breeding season, they often live in loose flocks. They can fly short distances in straight lines (which, unfortunately, has made them ideal targets for shooters), but they prefer to run. They nest under dense cover or a hedge solely on the ground in scrapes, lined with some grass and leaves. The males, who do not look after their eggs, are polygynous and are often accompanied by a group of several females (who produce a clutch of around 8–15 olive-coloured eggs).
Males have different courtship displays. In a lateral display, the male approaches the female, crossing slowly in a semicircle in front of her with his head low, the nearer wing drooped, and his wattle erect. One study found that feeding rituals in males attracted female common pheasants, while lateral display courtship behaviours in males aroused females for copulation.
Most parental investment in common pheasants is by the females, who, after building their nests and laying the eggs, incubate them for about 23 days after the final egg is laid. When the chicks hatch, they leave the nest when only a few hours old, but stay near the hen for several weeks. After hatching, the hen’s main role is to lead her chicks to food.
Common pheasants use dust bathing (sweeping sand and ground particles into their plumage by bill-raking, ground scratching, or wing shaking) to clean themselves. They roost both on the ground and in trees. When alarmed, they make distinctive hoarse croaking notes, which are a loud, piercing, double squawk ko-ork kok in males, with a sharp staccato on the last syllable.
In the wild, the annual survival rate of adult females is 21 to 46%, while it is only 7% for males (in many areas the reduced survival rate of males is caused by shooting), but some of this mortality may also be caused by the birds being reared in captivity and then released all at once. Due to overpopulation, captive upbringing, and shooting, nearly all pheasants in the wild die by age three (however, if they were wild-born, protected, and in the right habitat, they could live for over 20 years).
The Shooting of Pheasants
The Romans introduced these birds in many places across the Empire eventually becoming naturalised in many European countries, living in the wild and being hunted there. Pheasants may have been naturalised in Great Britain around the 10th century CE. Henry I granted the Abbot of Amesbury near Stonehenge the right to kill pheasants in 1100. It is known that Thomas Becket dined on pheasant the night before his infamously violent death in 1170.
Henry VIII kept a French priest as a breeder of pheasants, so some level of farming was already taking place in England around 1532, but only for the elite. In 1594, James VI of Scotland legislated to protect pheasants and other species from being taken by poachers. A few decades later pheasants may have started to be killed by gunshots. However, pheasant hunting seemingly disappeared from most of the British Isles in the early 17th century for a few decades as a result of woodland clearance and the drainage of marshes.
Common pheasants were introduced in North America in 1773 and have become well established throughout much of the Rocky Mountain states (Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, etc.), the Midwest, the Plains states, as well as Canada and Mexico.
By the 1820s, the practice of ‘battue’ or driven bird shooting common in continental Europe had begun to take place on a few well-known English estates, including Knowsley in Lancashire, and later pheasants were reintroduced as a bird for shooting all around the country in the 1830s, where they were farmed now both for food and “sport”. In 1831, King William IV passed a landmark Game Act which removed the property qualification for shooting birds, enabling any purchaser of a game certificate to go out and shoot them. The Enclosure Acts of the 18th and early 19th centuries allowed landowners to create commercial shooting states separated from the wild where they could breed pheasants and release them in their fence land for paying customers to shoot.
It was in the third quarter of the 19th century that the “driven-pheasant” shooting or “battue” established itself as the main form in which shooters shot pheasants. This is a specific style of pheasant commercial shooting in the UK, characterized by a controlled and organized hunt involving walking people with sticks scaring pheasants into the air in a controlled manner so groups of waiting shooters stationary in a line can shoot them when the birds approach them.
Driven game shooting remained a minority sport until 1840 when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who liked to shoot birds and was used to large-scale shoots in Germany, his homeland. This popularised the practice and the monarchy turned the royal estate at Windsor into a massive game preserve where pheasants were farmed and shot. By 1875, driven pheasant shooting had become established as the leading “field sport” in Great Britain and Ireland, more common than shooting grouse, partridges, or ducks, and even more common than foxhunting, and carried on until today. The British Royal family continues to be very much involved in this “blood sport” — The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge regularly participate in pheasant shooting.
Today, pheasants are still shot with the traditional formal “driven shoot” method (whereby guests or “paying guns” have birds driven over them by beaters), or with smaller “rough shoots” by other methods. The Game Act 1831 established the open season in the UK from 1st October to 1st February. In the US, most shooting is done by groups of hunters, who walk through fields and shoot the birds as they are flushed by dogs such as Labradors, Retrievers, and Springer Spaniels. In Ohio, captive-reared and released birds make up the majority of the population. In South Dakota alone over a million birds are shot every year by over 200,000 hunters.
The Farming of Pheasants and Partridges
Although pheasants have been killed and eaten by people in their original natural land in prehistorical times, they probably were already farmed millennia ago. Ancient bird remains in an 8,000-year-old site in northern China that were thought to be the first domesticated chickens turned out to be pheasants. Biochemistry tests revealed that these pheasants subsisted on a diet with lots of millet, which is a human-grown crop, suggesting that the birds lived alongside people all year.
Farming pheasants is big business in the UK. According to the Game Farmers’ Association, more than 60 million birds are bred for shooting each year on Britain’s 300 game farms, in an industry that is worth more than £2bn a year. From these, at least 50 million are captive-reared pheasants and nearly 12 million are captive-reared red-legged partridges (Alectoris rufa), and the numbers have been rising since the 1980s.
The number of pheasants now released annually is estimated to be ten times higher than in 1961, and the number of red-legged partridges released is 220 times higher. This makes the UK the country that releases more captive-bred birds for shooting in the world. For European countries where the data exists, the second-largest release of pheasants is in France with 10-15 million birds, or 22-32% of the UK total.
In shooting states and other breeding facilities, thousands of pheasants and partridges used for egg production are confined for most of their lives in cruel metal battery cages, known as raised laying units, in a process that could not be described in any better way than “factory farming” — as the type of farming chickens endure in modern animal agriculture.
The most intensive breeding farms keep up to eight female pheasants and one male in a single metal box for breeding. The crowded conditions make them frustrated, so they peck at each other causing bloody wounds. The pheasant eggs are then collected from these battery units. Once the eggs have hatched, the chicks are reared inside crowded sheds. At a few weeks of age, they are transferred to outside pens that can house a thousand or more birds. They are then released into woods where they continue to be fed until the day of the shoot. Sometimes the birds are bred by a separate company, and around August, when the birds are some eight to ten weeks of age, they are sold to shoots, where gamekeepers continue rearing them until they are released to be shot.
The minimum standards that exist in UK legislation regarding the keeping of animals for farming do not apply to “animals intended for use in competitions, shows, cultural or sporting events or activities”, which means that birds farmed for shooting are not afforded even the most basic animal welfare protection. For instance, since January 2012, barren cages for egg-laying chicken hens have been illegal in the EU and UK, but yet, no minimum legal space or enrichment requirements have been implemented for caged pheasants and partridges.
Many of the birds released onto UK shooting estates are bought from intensive farming systems in other countries. More than five million pheasants and over 2.1 million partridges were imported live into the UK between 1st May 2018 and 30th April 2019, and 54,000 hatching pheasant eggs and 5,250 live birds were imported from the USA during the same time — having to suffer long trips in upsetting conditions.
The UK animal rights group Animal Aid has been investigating the pheasant breeding industry in Wales and England since 2004. Their first major report in 2005 revealed in detail the horrors of the use of battery cages for breeding birds. Their website states, “The birds are so stressed by being confined, that they repeatedly fly upwards in an effort to escape, and they attack one another out of frustration and lack of space. Often, the gamekeeper’s solution is to put clips on the birds’ beaks to restrict movement and dressings on the birds’ backs to prevent mating injuries. But of course, this does nothing to alleviate the birds’ anxiety and may even serve to increase it.”
In 2019, one of Animal Aid’s investigations of one of these factory farms in Warwickshire, England, and another in Wales, obtained footage of chicks no older than three days kicked around a hatchery floor before some were thrown into a high-speed grinder and chopped into pieces. This is not an illegal practice as farms are allowed to kill their chicks until they are 72 hours old.
The latest Animal Aid investigation happened in May 2022, targeting two wild birds factory farms in Wales. Investigators found countless pheasants and partridges confined in dreadful battery cages on vast industrial farms.
Death and Suffering All-Around
Not all the birds released to be killed by shooters will die outright from a gunshot, as wounding in hunting birds is common. According to a 2015 UK shooting industry survey, 76% of shooters were unable to accurately gauge distance, with 10% thinking the target was twice as far away. The result is that up to 40% of birds may be wounded, and they may be left to die slowly when they are not retrieved by people or dogs. From those who escape the bullets, some may be run over by cars and others may be predated by wildlife. Only about 45% of the pheasants bred will die from shooting, but most will not survive more than a couple of years after being released.
Shooting states are places of death and suffering. As part of their job description, gamekeepers kill other wildlife such as foxes or raptors (with legal traps or snares, or with illegal poisoning) in the area where they release their pheasants because they charge shooters for each bird shot, so they don’t want to lose any bird to natural predators. About 4.5 million wild animals are killed each year in the UK by gamekeepers for this reason.
Also, the sudden release into the wild of so many birds that are not autochthonous creates an unbalance in natural ecosystems that has negative ecological consequences. Natural England has concluded that the released birds threaten native wildlife by increasing predator numbers and creating competition for food. Wildlife group Wild Justice, led by vegan naturalist Chris Packham, has said that releasing birds bred for shooting into the countryside harms native flora and fauna, including native birds, reptiles such as common lizards and adders, and vegetation.
Additionally, shooting pollutes the environment by spreading the toxic lead metal that is part of the ammunition used to shoot birds. Around 8,000 tonnes of poisonous lead shot is spread in the countryside each year. Although in England and Wales lead shot is prohibited in certain wetlands and for shooting ducks, coot and moorhen, while in Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is banned in wetlands, this ban does not apply to pheasant shooting states.
And then we have the problem of spreading diseases into the wild. Millions of birds have already been released into the countryside despite the risks they pose of transmitting bird flu to native wild birds.
All these deaths are not to produce food for humans, as very few pheasants shot end up being eaten by people — normally upper or middle-class people as pheasant dishes continue to be food for the privileged. One study found only 6% of birds reared make it to the food chain through licensed game-processing plants. Dead pheasants are often found dumped in pits in or near shooting states, but estate owners deceivingly claim most birds are taken home by shooters or sold to pubs and butchers. So, all this suffering, death, and destruction is done “for fun”.
Is it that surprising that replacing animal agriculture with plant-based agriculture and eliminating farm animal factory farms seems so difficult if keeping millions of wild birds in factory farms and shooting them for fun is still legal in several countries?
The farming of pheasants reminds us how long we have to go to get closer to the vegan world.