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Wildlife in Kingston

Tuesday 19 March 2013

It’s mid-March and I’m watching a gorgeous male pheasant making the most of the seeds spilled from our garden bird feeder by smaller species, predominantly goldfinches.
He looks enormous, his dimensions somehow exaggerated by the untimely snowy backdrop. He also looks utterly out of place – and so he is.

Authorities differ over when the pheasant was introduced to Britain, with some believing that the Romans were responsible and others that the first birds came here with the Normans in the 11th century.
Either way, pheasants have been here for a millennium at least and yet seem to have adapted
rather poorly to their new environments, although some of these are not too different from their original, predominantly Asian habitat of grassland near water with tree shelter close by.

Pheasants have of course long been regarded as game birds, presumably owing their popularity with those who like to kill birds for entertainment to the fact that their large size and direct flight makes them rather difficult to miss for anyone halfway competent with a gun. For a half century at least, they have been reared somewhat like chickens, in closed pens, before being released to face a positive blizzard of shot, their former carers turning into agents of destruction almost in an instant. Is it too anthropomorphic, I wonder, to see pheasants as very puzzled birds? If they are indeed bemused by life, this dramatic and overnight turn in their fortunes may explain why. Certainly, barely a half of all pheasants in the UK survive into the first season after their release, which means that a staggering 10 million are shot annually. Cars must account for many more as the pheasant is almost alone among birds in this country to have failed to learn to take evasive action when faced with an imminent collision with tons of metal travelling at speed.

The pheasant population in the UK is heavily concentrated in areas where there are still large shooting estates, with counties like Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Wiltshire supporting vast numbers – albeit temporarily. The bird is largely absent from Wales, north and west Scotland and big urban areas.
In Sussex, pheasants are very widely distributed outside the narrow built-up coastal strip and Crawley.
In Kingston itself you can expect to see a pheasant almost anywhere – strutting about in your garden, jaywalking across minor – and major – roads or suddenly exploding into flight from almost under your feet in the woods. If you don’t see them, you almost certainly hear them, the korkk-kok of the male carrying long distances. A similar, scolding, alarm call is extended almost indefinitely if the bird is flushed from cover.

It’s hard to regard the pheasant as a really wild bird but if they are left to their own devices, they breed in April or May, laying up to 15 olive brown eggs. The nest is often just in a hollow scraped into the ground by the female but may occasionally be in a tree.
Anywhere with cover will do, including long grass, hedges, reed-beds, scrub and gardens. Incubation lasts about 25 days. The young can run about immediately. They are tended by the female at first before flying within two weeks of hatching.

The Kingston nuthatch has been evident again recently in its apparently favourite garden in The Avenue. I’d be interested to hear of other sightings and especially if anyone sees more than one bird at the same time. Judy and Fred Dawber (and others? Do let me know) have also had their annual extended visit from a pair of mallards but, as before, their pond has apparently not been selected as suitable breeding territory this year. Do mallards nest in anyone’s Kingston garden?