Why Are Some Pheasants Black?

If you’ve ever been out pheasant hunting on a game reserve, you might have run across a dark-colored pheasant or two. These birds have black-green iridescent feathering across their entire body and can be a shock if you’ve never seen one before.

Why are some pheasants black? Black pheasants—also known as melanistic mutant pheasants—are a dark-colored variety of the common pheasant that was initially bred in Europe for hunting. Since their introduction, feral melanistic pheasants have thrived and spread across areas where common pheasants are typically found.

Bagging a black pheasant can result in a once-in-a-lifetime trophy. Keep reading to learn more about the origins of the black pheasant and where you can find them.  

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Black Pheasants Are Melanistic Mutant Pheasants

Melanistic mutant pheasants are a naturally occurring color variation of the common or ring-necked pheasant, which now occur in the wild across central Europe and the northern half of the United States. Pheasants are a game bird that favors temperate woodlands with a thick brush for cover. Ring-necked pheasants are also popularly bred and raised on game preserves for hunting.

Melanistic traits aren’t exclusive to pheasants—like albinos exist in most animal species, melanistic individuals crop up in several species, from deer to wolves. One of the most famous melanistic animals is the black panther. (Source: Twisted Sifter)

Unlike albinism, where light or white coloring is produced by a lack of pigmentation, melanism is the production of excess pigmentation, resulting in animals that are wholly or partially black. However, unlike albinos, which often can’t survive easily in the wild, melanistic specimens of animals can often adapt and thrive.

Melanism tends to crop up more often in animals such as big cats and North American wolves, where dark coloring is a useful form of camouflage in heavily forested areas. (Source: NCBI) It is not found as commonly in prey species, but in the case of the ring-necked pheasant, dark coloring has been advantageous in providing the birds the camouflage necessary to survive in the wild.

History of the Black Pheasant

Even though pheasants can now be found across much of the United States and Europe, these birds were originally imported from Asia in their ancient native range. Since they were such a famous game bird among the aristocratic class, known for their bright coloring and succulent flesh, ring-necked pheasants were soon introduced across much of the temperate world as a first-class game bird.

The first dedicated introduction programs for black pheasants in the United States began in Willamette Valley in Oregon under Owen Denny, the U.S. consult to Shanghai in the 1880s. (Source: Audubon)

Melanistic mutant pheasants were cultivated in England as a specialty game bird, both for leisure hunting and for country ornament. These pheasants occur naturally in North American pheasant populations as a mutation. They have also been deliberately released across much of the pheasant’s North American range as part of wildlife management programs.

Now, across Europe and North America, many game preserves deliberately release a percentage of melanistic mutant pheasants among their wild stock as a kind of special trophy for hunters. An advantage of black pheasants is that they tend to be a bit larger and slower than their wild counterparts, which makes them an easier target for less experienced pheasant hunters.

What Do Black Pheasants Look Like?

Contrary to the name, black pheasants or melanistic mutant pheasants aren’t actually black.

  • Melanistic mutant pheasant hens are a dark brownish color with a copper-colored stippling pattern across their entire bodies up to the shoulder. The black pheasant hen has a smooth collar of darker, iridescent blue-black feathering that is distinctive from the more brownish feathers of the head and body. 
  • Melanistic mutant pheasant males are darker in color than the hens, but they’re still not a pure black color. Instead, the body of a male melanistic pheasant ranges from an iridescent beetle-green across the head and back to a dark iridescent bluish-black coloring on the chest, with stippling of the natural brown coloring in the feathers across the wings and back. Melanistic pheasant males also have the distinctive red faces and barred tails of wild type pheasants.

Where Do You Find Black Pheasants?

Since their release across several wildlife management areas in the northern part of the United States as well as Europe, black pheasants can be found interspersed with natural wild populations of pheasants across both continents. Hunters often report spotting melanistic pheasants in the field while hunting for common pheasants.

For people who want a higher odd of running into black pheasants on a hunt, there are several American hunting clubs and game preserves that deliberately release black pheasants for their ornamental quality. Black pheasants are popular targets on a pheasant hunt because of their relative rarity in the wild.

For people who would rather raise their black pheasants, several hatcheries in America offer black pheasant fertilized eggs, chickens, or paired juveniles for sale.

Here are a few hatcheries where black pheasants are available:

Pheasants that are raised for release into a game preserve are typically released at one of two ages—eight weeks old or at an adult size in the spring. There are varying opinions on which is the better option. On the one hand, pheasants that are released young are not as expensive to raise. But on the other, adult pheasants released into the wild are more likely to be able to survive and fend for themselves than a youngster.

Unfortunately for pheasants and other game birds such as quail, habitat loss from deforestation and predation means that pheasants of any color mostly exist in strict wildlife management zones, and though populations are released periodically into the wild, very few of these populations are self-sustaining in number.

Raising Black Pheasants

A large part of ensuring that young pheasants can survive release is making sure that they are reared in large, spacious “runaway” pens with plenty of thick brush for cover so that the birds can practice hiding from predators.

Here are some of the supplies necessary to raise a bevy of pheasant chicks:

  • 200-300 square feet of enclosed indoor space
  • Electric heating bulbs
  • Watering founts (number depends on chicks being raised)
  • Barricade (to keep chicks close to the heat source for the first ten to twelve days)
  • Animal bedding such as straw or wood chips
  • Metal feeding troughs (number depends on chicks being raised)

Like baby chickens, baby pheasants are largely self-sufficient at a very young age and can both feed and water themselves as long as they have been introduced to food and water by their caretakers. Baby pheasants must be kept near the heat source to:

  • Keep their water clean for drinking and
  • Keep their bedding dry to prevent dehydration and chilling.

One issue that many pheasant farmers run into is that pheasants are prone to cannibalism in close quarters. Methods to deal with this problem range from hooding the birds at five weeks of age to debeaking them. (Source: Oakwood Game Farm)

In pheasant enclosures, corners should be avoided, as chicks can dogpile each other in the corners and trample or suffocate smaller, weaker chicks. The more care is taken with pheasants at this fragile young age, the more likely you are to raise pheasants that survive to adulthood and beyond the first year of release into the wild.

Black Pheasants Are a Beautiful Variation of the Common Pheasant

Whether you want to hunt black pheasants or want some to raise on your property as an ornamental game, black pheasants are popular among hunters and farmers alike.

While black pheasants aren’t native to much of their contemporary range, these birds are well-loved by conservationists the world over.