When Sir Thomas Bertram returned from the East Indies, his family had been in the midst of rehearsing for Lovers Vows, the play that Fanny Price knew Sir Thomas would have nixed had he been home. Waiting for the tea tray, Lady Bertram innocently mentions the play. Tom, the heir, quickly deflects the conversation and speaks of hunting:
“The all will soon be told,” cried Tom hastily, and with affected unconcern; “but it is not worth while to bore my father with it now. You will hear enough of it tomorrow, sir. We have just been trying, by way of doing something, and amusing my mother, just within the last week, to get up a few scenes, a mere trifle. We have had such incessant rains almost since October began, that we have been nearly confined to the house for days together. I have hardly taken out a gun since the 3d. Tolerable sport the first three days, but there has been no attempting any thing since. The first day I went over Mansfield Wood, and Edmund took the copses beyond Easton, and we brought home six brace between us, and might each have killed six times as many; but we respect your pheasants, sir, I assure you, as much as you could desire. I do not think you will find your woods by any means worse stocked than they were. I never saw Mansfield Wood so full of pheasants in my life as this year. I hope you will take a day’s sport there yourself, sir, soon.” – Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
The enclosure acts helped the pheasant hunters in England immensely, for enclosed lands were surrounded by hedgerows and wild thickets, which provided a nice cover for the birds. A century earlier, the number of pheasants were in decline when woodlands were cleared and marshes were drained. Tough game laws were enacted in 1800 to preserve the number of pheasants. But with land enclosures the number of pheasants rose, for they preferred dead brush and weeds that were about knee high and that were situated near the edges of corn and grain fields. Pheasants were not native to England.
The Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) was brought over by the Norman’s in the eleventh century and soon dispersed around the country, being introduced to parts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland in the late sixteenth century. By the early nineteenth century they had become the most important game bird. – Birds of Britain
Hunters benefited from the pheasants’ penchant for sticking to a regular feeding schedule and their habit of returning to an area where food was abundant. They would leave their nightly roost sites in the morning about two hours after sunrise and begin to exercise and move around in thick brush, dense patches of grasses, or standing cornfields. An hour after rising they could be seen foraging for food in the fields or picking at gravel or grit near roads. Nearly 90% of the pheasants would be searching for food at this time. Their unvarying schedules meant that hunters knew the precise time to set out to hunt the birds and where to find them. By mid-morning, pheasants would stop feeding and seek cover in thick brush or in trees until late afternoon. If the weather was particularly nasty, they would seek refuge in deeper cover, which explains Tom’s statement about the thick rain confining him to the house.
Pheasants that were hunkered down in large fields of standing corn were hard to hunt, for they ran through the brush to avoid their pursuers. Running is a pheasant’s preferred mode of flight, although they will burst dramatically into the air when startled with wings whirring, alerting their brethren with a kok-kok-kok call.
A wily pheasant will not move, even when a dog’s nose is almost upon it. It’s color camouflages it so well in the brush that a hunter can walk right past it without ever noticing the bird. A good hunting dog will point at the pheasant, alerting its owner. And after the bird has burst into flight, will retrieve it where it fell. The oldest pheasant hunting dog breeds include Cocker Spaniels, English Setters and Pointers.
The whirring Pheasant springs,
And mounts, exulting on triumphant wings:
Ah! What avails his glossy, varying dyes,
His purple crest, and scarlet-circled eyes,
The vivid green his shining plumes unfold,
His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold.
Alexander Pope – Windsor Forest, 1713.
At mid-day, it was best for hunters to search for them resting in their roosting placing of grassy stands and marches, and along edges of fields and ditch banks. They love to eat berries, seeds, grasses such as clover and alfafa, and insects. Pheasants eat almost any plant or animal food (grasshoppers, fly larvae, mosquitoes) that is within reach and is abundant, although the largest percentage of their food consumption are vegetables, fruits, and grains. Their crops can contain as much as 19 grams to a whopping 50 grams of food. (Paul L. Dalke) The birds find the greatest variety of food in October. In June they graze largely on insects and grain.
Much of their colors and size is of course influenced by their habitat and diet. The ones around cropfields tend to get larger in size and finer eating after feasting on corn, wheat, hops or other grains. Those around the woodland and wetlands make a living more on buds, berries, fruits, slugs and snails, worms and bugs, small animals like juvenile mice, snakes, lizards or even other little birds at times…- The Pheasant, Or Everyone’s Royal Bird
Hunting for pheasant occurred principally from November through January. (Just before the Upper Crust returned to London for the Season.) Locals guarded their best fowling grounds fiercely, even though game was still plentiful in England and Scotland during the 18th century. Hunters not only hunted for sport, but for food as well, so hunting had a practical nature.
Only landowners had the right to hunt. Poaching increased during times of famine and want, even though penalties were severe for poachers who were caught.
Only persons who met specified property qualifications, essentially gentlemen and the aristocracy, could legally hunt game (such as deer, rabbits, or pheasants). Anyone else hunting these animals, whether using nets, guns, or other animals, were committing a crime, even if they owned land upon which the game was found. Prosecutions under these statutes frequently occurred outside the courts, under summary jurisdiction, but some offences were made punishable by death under the “Black Act” (1723) and in the process brought within the jurisdiction of the Old Bailey. This Act made it a capital offence to hunt, wound, or steal deer, conies, hares, and fish in the King’s forests; break down the heads of fishponds; or simply go about armed and disguised anywhere game was kept. This act was repealed in 1823, but being armed and entering into enclosed land in order to remove game remained a crime throughout the period covered by the Proceedings [or through 1913]. – The Proceedings of the Old Bailey
By late afternoon, around 4 hours before sunset, approximately 75% of the pheasants would return to their feeding areas. This was, obviously, another good time to go after them.
Hens nested on the ground; a cock might service as many as 6 mates. Although predation, hunting, and modern methods of agriculture have reduced wild thickets and roosting places, the bird is still quite successful at breeding. This tale from a book published in 1881 relates how stubbornly and persistently a hen will remain on her nest:
Although there is usually some attempt at concealment under covert, pheasants nests are not unfrequently placed even by perfectly wild birds in very exposed situations. Mr John Walton of Sholton Hall, Durham, related the following account of the singular tameness of a wild bred bird: A hen pheasant, a perfectly wild one so far as rearing is concerned, for we have no artificial processes here, selected as the site for her nest a hedge by a private cart road, where she was exposed to the constant traffic of carts farm servants and others passing and repassing her quarters, all of which she took with infinite composure. She was very soon discovered on her nest, and actually suffered herself when sitting to be stroked down her plumage by the children and others who visited her, and this without budging an inch. In fact, she seemed rather to like it. Perhaps she became a pet with the neighbours from this unusual docility, and her brood, fourteen in number, was thereby saved, for every egg was hatched, and the young birds have all got safely away. – Pheasants: Their Natural History and Practical Management
In Mansfield Park, Tom mentioned returning with six brace of pheasants, which translated to six males and six females. (A pair made a brace.) Tom’s number approximates the average number of pheasants for a typical hunter, although there were spectacular exceptions:
His majesty King George V of Great Britain, a keen and avid bird shooter as world has ever seen, in 1913 has claimed over a thousand pheasants in one day, out of a total bag of 3937 in much less than a weeks worth of personal shooting. The numbers are well documented and strict records are still kept by the reputed British gamekeepers. Another grand English shooter, Lord Rippon, had bird tallies surpassing anything mankind has ever seen since: he layed claim in his gamekeeping books for almost a quarter million pheasants, shot by himself. His records tell he dispatched 222,976 pheasants in his long shooting career, between 1867 and 1913, with an average of 4774 pheasants per season. – The Pheasant, Or Everyone’s Royal Bird
Sir Thomas Elyot best described in 1536 why pheasants were a favorite game bird – because they tasted so good in the pot!
‘Fesaunt excedeth all fowles in sweetnesse and holsomnesse, and is equall to capon in nourishynge…’
More on the Topic
- Sport hunting : Jane Austen Centre Online Magazine
- Fowling: The Georgian Index
- The Society of 18th Century Gentlemen
- The Ultimate Pheasant Hunting
- Hunting and Shooting in the United Kingdom
- First of September, 1827: Two Nerdy History Girls
- The History of the Pheasant
- Pheasant Hunting Tips
- The Society of 18th Century Gentlemen offers a recipe, Old Reliable, that uses four pheasant breasts.
- Dalke, Paul L. Food Habits of Adult Pheasants in Michigan Based on Crop Analysis Method, Ecology, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Apr., 1937), pp. 199-213, Published by: Ecological Society of America, Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1930460
- All Guns Blazing, The Telegraph