We are often asked if our pheasants can be kept free range. This is not impossible. Many people do manage this quite successfully (usually if they shut them in at night) but we do not recommend it. I very much wish we could as it seems the kind thing to do. Pheasants, though, are easy prey especially for foxes. Dogs and mink and cats are other predators and for young birds the list grows much longer to include many raptors, stoats, weasels, rats and more. Any eggs your pheasants lay if they live that long could be taken by all sorts of animals including hedgehogs.
Another consideration is the birds leaving the confines of your "safe" garden and facing terrible dangers such as traffic. They do fly much better than most chickens and manage pretty well even with their wing feathers clipped. To add to the fact that your new birds may well disappear you could then find yourself in bother for releasing birds, into the wild, which are not endemic to the UK.
Of course in an ideal world a beautiful variety of birds could roam around the garden and even the neighbourhood in perfect safety and live harmoniously with everything and everyone they meet along the way. They would live happily and raise their little chicks close by so that we can see how well they are doing. Unfortunately if a number of birds are kept together then the parentage is more difficult to ascertain and chicks could easily be hybrids if more than one species is kept. Although that can also happen in an aviary, it is easier to separate birds to make sure the correct pheasants are paired up for breeding.
We are of the belief that keeping pheasants at liberty (free range) is more likely to lead to heartbreak. It may seem more "cruel" to keep birds caged in but if they are given plenty of room and lots of plants especially shrubs and most pheasants also appreciate grass, as well as shelter, perches and good quality food your birds will be extremely content and will probably do much better than their wild relatives.
Keeping the birds in aviaries is not without its problems however. Although most of the time pheasants prefer to walk, rather than fly, if they take fright they will head straight up at great speed and hit their heads on the aviary roof. Therefore it helps greatly if this is made of soft netting and not wire mesh.
Vermin can be a major headache. Mice are the biggest problem we have. We do keep quite a few cats which help a great deal however many mice probably never leave the confines of the aviary as there is no need - they have a perfectly comfortable life in them. It is a risky business using poison near the birds. It can be placed undercover so that the mice can reach it but not the birds but care has to be taken that it is not trailed out so the area undercover should be a reasonable size, any bait should be central with, I would suggest, at least a foot (30cm)of space surrounding it that is out of reach of the birds. We have tried live traps which were supposed to catch quite a few mice at once but all they managed to do was give them a good supper. It seems the traps were no more difficult to escape from than a revolving door. Simple spring traps work well but will only catch one mouse at a time. As we have to use lots of these it is a very time consuming job. When using traps, we use about half a dozen traps baited with peanuts under a large tub and put these in about 6 - 8 pens at a time. Once we think we have cleared these aviaries of mice we move the traps to different pens. We hang our feeders up for the bigger birds that can reach them a bit higher which does help a little but mice will still collect spilled food even if they cannot easily get into feeders. Treadle feeders which open when the bird steps on the base can be bought but these are big containers meant for large numbers of birds (they are sold for the game industry and poultry), not a pair. They are also expensive and some of the smaller species are not be heavy enough to open them. They are great for pens of the larger poults and many of our mature species. We can use them for the smaller birds if we weigh down the step but obviously this is then useless as a guard against mice, and also the sparrows that are constant aviary visitors at Allandoo, although they do still keep the feed drier than some of the alternative dishes.
We keep larger traps in small tunnels around the outside perimeter of our aviaries to catch rats as well as the occasional stoat or weasel. As rats are inclined to run along the side of buildings rather than out in the open they are more likely to run into the traps when they are placed in this way. It is an ongoing chore and if not kept up rats can quickly become a major danger to the birds. As well as being a direct threat due to their predatory nature they also spread many diseases in the aviary so it is vital to have a good system to at least keep their numbers down and irradicate them completely if possible.
We have been lucky where foxes are concerned. Many of our pens are built directly onto bedrock and so will be impenetrable from beneath. If there is any depth to the soil under pens wire mesh can be planted in the ground at a depth of at least 18 inches down and bent outwards from the aviary (for another 18 inches or more) at a 90 degree angle to deter animals from digging their way in to the birds. Our dogs are a deterrent to any foxes but we also have an electric wire around the top of the pens so that foxes will have more difficulty getting in through the soft netting on the top. We hear stories of fox visits all too often where they've killed many birds, in only one night, so it is worth investing some time, money and energy into protection against these crafty & intelligent, villains.
We have no shortage of birds of prey about. These include Buzzards, Owls, Sparrowhawks and a Kestrel which is always close at hand but these do not bother our birds nearly as much as our resident heron which always starts our birds squawking. They also tend to become worried if there are a few crows overhead. Maybe we shouldn't let them watch so many horror movies!
If anyone has any questions about keeping pheasants in an aviary please feel free to ask. I will help if I can. Also if you have any tips, especially regarding mice, do not hesitate to e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
It's always nice to hear from other bird breeders and customers especially when they have some of their own ideas and ways of doing things to share with us.
Matthew Diaz has written a tip for catching mice:
"Using sticky peanut flavoured sweets or peanut butter in the mousetrap makes it more difficult for the mouse to make a quick get away as the mouse will be unable to grab it like they would a peanut or a piece of cheese."
Below I have included e-mails from Alexandra Pain in response to the above article regarding pheasants bought from us, to be kept free range:
"Hi Zoe, I have just been looking at your website about keeping pheasants free range. You may remember we bought 3 cocks (2 tragopans and a golden) from you at the end of last year to run with our domestic ducks and wildfowl collection and I thought you would like to know how they were getting on. Having read your article on your website just now I thought it would be appropriate to let you know my experience as a beginner going 'outdoors'.
When the pheasants arrived we put them in an old brick stable with the door meshed up for the first 2 months so that we could get to know them and also wait until we could persuade our local bird expert to come and clip their wings. Living in the lofty stable with all mod-cons would have been a nice life for them, but that is not how we wanted to appreciate them. As you may recall, we have a 2 acre fenced compound which is surrounded by a 12' electrified fence, in which we keep a small collection of rare-species ducks and geese plus some domestic ducks, 13 guinea-pigs and a pet rabbit! Within this area are some old farm buildings and the vegetable plot. At the beginning of December last year we finally released the pheasants who all promptly ran to find cover. It was clear they were very uncomfortable with the huge space having been confined to small areas all their lives. The next morning there were only two left (the satyr and the golden. The Temminck's was nowhere to be seen. Despite searching the whole of the farm on horseback with duck nets in hand we never found him. It was clear the birds couldn't fly. The only clue was a small 4" square gap where the mesh joined the edge of one of the farm buildings where we found some feathers. I think he got lucky when he ran towards the building and maybe hit the mesh and pinged off a couple of the fixing staples. However, the story does have a happy ending...... the other two chaps spent almost the next 5 months in an old shed under some old hay bales where I duly visited them to provide room service on a daily basis bringing selections of fruit and veg. Whilst they seemed content it wasn't much fun for me as I had each time to climb a grassy bank to get to them! Finally, I decided to withhold room service and starved them out! They came out after a couple of days and agreed to eat with the ducks before running back home to their shed. Gradually they came out more and more (mostly in the evening) until they now wander about quite happily around the compound although they have found the delights of the vegetable garden. They have become particularly friendly and when I call them usually appear for some food. They are of limited intellect it would seem as they only know one word which is 'peanuts' which covers all food options! I have grown really fond of the two of them and thought you would like to see the pics which I took last week. The Golden is really getting his colours now and the Satyr Tragopan also (although I am not sure how much of him will eventually go red - he is generally splodgy all over. Will he get his blue bits in the breeding season only? I am not really sure what to expect from him!). Both birds seem to get on really well with each other. I am sure they are very happy as their clipped wings have grown back and they seem to have no inclination to fly off. I would go so far as to say they have forgotten how to fly because I have noticed they make a big fuss of coming down from something high and will make great efforts to hop down in stages rather than fly down even if it is to get their feed.
As we have got so fond of the pheasants we were keen to expand our collection. We are building a new small animal unit on the back of the stable block which is actually part of the compound. In here we will be able to provide some shelter which could be heated in winter if necessary. Do you think a Monal would appreciate this lifestyle? There was also another variety which had a blue head which took our fancy (can't remember the name). I think if we were to do this again we would have much younger birds (chicks) and bring them up with some ducklings in an open pen in the compound and then introduce them to the space at a younger age. This way we would not induce a state of 'agoraphobia' with a bird that had been cage reared. Perhaps you could let me know when you have any chicks which would be beyond the vulnerable stage but still young enough to cope with the outdoor lifestyle we want to offer them. As before, we could collect.
Yes, please print my letter if you feel it would help. In a nutshell my experience of free range pheasants are: