Fact or fiction: A ringneck pheasant is the most difficult upland bird to kill.
Anyone who’s hunted them will vouch for the pheasant’s reputation as a tough bird, but is it a scientific reality that ringnecks are more difficult to kill than other birds?
“Yes,” says Tom Roster — the ballistics expert who heads up the Cooperative North American Shotgunning Education Program, known by the acronym CONSEP. Roster has done extensive testing of pheasants. After conducting necropsies on nearly 400 pheasants, Roster calls the ringneck: “The ultimate upland challenge, one tough bird to kill.”
Necropsy, by the way, is like an autopsy. Researchers probe the bodies of birds to determine, which pellets provided the fatal wounds and which produced crippling wounds.
What Roster discovered is that pheasants are anatomically different from other upland birds, possessing a built-in suit of armor than makes them almost bulletproof. Part of that armor is a layer of fine, hair-like feathers on a pheasant’s backside. Those feathers tend to wad up around pellets, slowing their progress and inhibiting penetration. Since most shots are at pheasants moving away from the gunner, pellets must penetrate those feathers on their way to the bird’s heart and lungs.
If that wasn’t enough, the pellets also must pass through the gizzard, a grit-filled muscle that blocks the path to the vital organs.
Turkey hunters would argue that a big gobbler is tougher to kill, requiring even heavier loads than a pheasant. That’s probably true, but most turkeys are killed at fairly close range and are taken head-on or at a side angle. Turkey hunters generally shoot for the head and neck, which provide immediately fatal kills.
Pheasants, on the other hand, are nearly always flying away from the hunter, which means the pellets must penetrate their body armor. Even passing shots present a problem in that the pellets still must pass through a wall of feathers that restrict their passage through the bird’s thick breast. Anyone who’s ever cleaned a pheasant has likely found numerous pellets rolled up in a cocoon of feathers buried in the breast.
Snapping Leg Bone Difficult
All it takes to knock a pheasant out of the sky is a single pellet that breaks a wing bone. But a pheasant that hits the ground with its legs intact will quickly scamper out of the country, and even a well-trained dog can have a tough time tracking it down. Because the birds tuck their legs under their body in flight, snapping a leg bone is difficult.
Roster’s research was conducted using steel shot in the No. 2, No. 4 and No. 6 sizes. What he observed is that No. 4 steel (the equivalent of No. 6 lead) is the minimum shot size to consistently kill pheasants beyond 30 yards to 35 yards.
In fact, his studies seem to indicate that hunters would be better off avoiding long shots.
That coincides with the findings of 20 years of tests conducted on waterfowl hunters. In that time, Roster has checked the shooting abilities of tens of thousands of hunters and what he found is that most of us are not capable of consistently killing birds beyond 30 yards.
Use a Lethal Pattern
What’s the solution? Roster says his research on ducks shows that a lethal pattern must contain at least 85 pellets and No. 6 lead is the smallest pellet that will consistently penetrate vital organs. The minimum load capable of delivering 85 No. 6 pellets at 35 yards is a 3-inch, 20-gauge.
Anyone going into the field loaded with a 2-3/4-inch, 20-gauge or 28-gauge is “under-gunned,” he says.
“Light loads can only kill at close range,” Roster says, “but heavy loads can kill at close range, medium range and long range. It’s important that hunters recognize the ballistic limitations of their loads.”
Obviously, Roster’s research is only valid if the shooter is capable of putting a flying bird in the center of his shot pattern. Even a 3-1/2-inch, 12-gauge load won’t be effective if the shot is off the mark.
Take Closer Shots
For that reason, the bottom line in pheasant hunting — and hunting just about any other gamebird for that matter — is being selective about the shots you take.
“A lot of hunters will insist that they don’t shoot at pheasants beyond 30 or 35 yards,” Roster says. “But I’ve yet to hunt with anyone like that. On those tough days, most hunters will blast away at birds 40-, 50- or even 60 yards away.”
Those long pokes on pheasants may be impressive when the shooter is successful and the bird is retrieved. But field research confirms that more pheasants keep flying, carrying pellets that produce delayed mortality, than actually hit the ground and are retrieved.
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