Hatching a plan to protect her new brood

Hen pheasant.

Hen pheasant.

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Renowned for photographing animals in their natural habitat, Robert Fuller got a surprise when a subject landed in his garden.

While cooking a steak on the barbecue outside my front door one sunny June evening, I spotted the tail of a hen pheasant sticking out from under a pyracantha bush.

I followed the tail and sure enough there she was, sitting tight on eggs.

I had been so busy with my summer art exhibition I hadn’t noticed her, which made the wildlife artist in me feel a bit foolish.

Fancy not to have noticed such a large bird laying a clutch of eggs right under my nose?

The moment I thought about noses, I quickly checked where my border terrier, Tink, was.

Moments earlier she had been just 18 inches away from this broody pheasant, catching drips under the BBQ.

She was still there, but luckily was far more interested in the steak juice.

Pheasants and partridges often nest in the garden 
or in the borders by the gallery, and with good 
reason – it keeps them safe from Mr Fox and other predators.

Keeping in close proximity to humans is a useful tactic to deter enemies.

But perhaps this particular hen pheasant hadn’t banked on the location being bang next to Tink’s favourite place to lie out in the sun – the front door step.

On the other hand she may well see this dog as her secret guard.

Over the following few weeks I made sure that Tink was never alone in the garden.

And then one Sunday evening I heard cheeping.

I peered into the bush to see two newly-hatched pheasant chicks and the hen still sitting tight.

As I headed out of the front door the next morning to top up the bird feeders in the back garden, Tink, who usually follows me like a shadow, suddenly shot off.

Before I realised she had left my side, I heard a flurry of feathers and turned to see the hen pheasant chasing Tink down the drive.

The hen’s tail feathers were fanned out and she was hissing at poor Tink like a snake.

Tink scurried away, her tail between her legs.

As I walked over to collect the terrified dog, the hen charged at me: stopping literally at my toes and then circling me.

I scooped Tink up and took her round to the back garden, hoping this fierce hen would settle back down on her chicks.

She did and then sat tight for the rest of the day whilst the remaining chicks hatched.

When I checked on her that evening, she hissed a warning.

But the following morning when I looked in she had gone, leaving a pile of empty eggshells.

I could hear her though, hissing two feet away at the back of the bush, so I slowly moved away.

I was keen to capture the pheasant with her chicks. They are often deep in undergrowth at this time of year and you rarely get a good view of the chicks.

I thought about putting up some sort of hide and then had an idea.

I’ve got an ivy-covered bower which overlooks a garden pond.

I cut a couple of holes out of the back of it to make the perfect lookout.

The pheasant was surrounded by a gravel drive and so she would have to bring her chicks out into the open at some point.

I set my cameras up and kept an eye on and off all morning. By lunchtime she was out on the drive.

I crept out of the front door, but even so she cowered down as soon as she saw me.

Once I was hidden in the bower her posture changed and she relaxed again, standing up to look for 
insect life.

Her chicks were dashing all around her pecking at twigs and grass.

A few lucky ones caught an insect or two.

When the female found an insect she clucked and the chicks all rushed in to grab 
a bit. I’d been watching and photographing for quite a while, but it was getting cold and the weather forecast wasn’t looking great.

This gave me an idea.

I decided to put some mealworms out for the new family.

As the hen settled down to brood, the chicks bustling back under her cosy feathers, I went to fetch the mealworms.

I scattered them around her before returning to my hiding place. She spotted them and was up on her feet before I could get back in position.

Chicks showered down from under her wings as she shook them out.

One clung on tight 
though and remained riding on her back – only jumping off later when it noticed the others tucking into the worms.

The hen had picked up 
one mealworm and called 
to the chicks and one 
had rushed in and 
snatched it out of her 
beak, before disappearing behind a bag of bark chips to eat it.

Then she had offered up another mealworm and the chicks queued up again.

Soon the chicks were finding the mealworms for themselves.

They dashed about in different directions looking for them.

When one did they would hide the hoard from 
their siblings, turning their backs on them to eat in private.

It is a real pleasure to see young ones doing this as it is a test of the survival of the fittest.

I was curious to see how large the clutch was, but 
with all the movement it 
was hard to keep track of them. I finally decided that there were 13 in total, but couldn’t be 100 per cent sure.

I photographed this 
family for the rest of the afternoon. As the afternoon wore on the hen pheasant moved her brood halfway down the drive into some thicker bushes.

It was fascinating to watch these early stages of life.

Over tea I told my young daughter Lily that the eggs had hatched and of course she was desperate to see the chicks. I showed her the hen pheasant and told her the bird was sitting on top of the chicks. “But won’t they get squashed?”

“No,” I replied. “They are under her wings.” I slowly reached forward, lifted her wing up and took out two chicks.

Lily couldn’t believe it. In actual fact neither could I.

This was a totally wild pheasant and she was acting more like a broody hen.

She had become quite accustomed to us all – even Tink.

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