Birds of Shakespeare: The ring-necked pheasant

A pheasant on the ground and two pheasants flying
Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) by Missy Dunaway
30×22 inches, acrylic ink on paper

With the pheasant, we continue following artist Missy Dunaway on a bird-watching expedition through Shakespeare’s works. Supported by a 2021 Folger artist-in-residence fellowship, her growing collection of paintings aims to catalog every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems—at least 65 species. Read more on the Collation blog about Dunaway’s approach and research using the Folger collection. To find natural science facts about each species as well as paintings of more birds in the series, visit her website BirdsofShakespeare.com.


It is estimated that the ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) was introduced to England by the Romans in the eleventh century.[1] It flourished as a wild and domesticated fowl and is now one of England’s most common game birds. Shakespeare only refers to the pheasant twice in The Winter’s Tale despite its prevalence.

In The Winter’s Tale, the shepherd and his son wish to speak with the king but are unfamiliar with court language and customs. They misunderstand when Autolycus asks for their advocate—a representative to validate their business with the king. The shepherd’s son misinterprets “advocate” as a fancy word for a bribe, as it was common for gamebirds to be used as bribes for local magistrates.[2]

The Winter’s Tale (Act IV, Scene 4, Line 867)

SHEPHERD: My business, sir, is to the King.
AUTOLYCUS: What advocate hast thou to him?
SHEPHERD: I know not, an ’t like you.
SHEPHERD’S SON: [aside to ShepherdAdvocate’s the
court word for a pheasant. Say you have none.
SHEPHERD: [to Autolycus] None, sir. I have no pheasant,
cock nor hen.

The pheasant is mentioned with other domesticated birds raised for food. When I searched through the Folger’s LUNA Digital Image Database for pheasant images, I found scans of recipe books and cookeries from the early seventeenth century.

A handwritten recipe book
A handwritten recipe book circa 1600 instructing how to prepare “a yong henne, partridge & pheasant.” Folger Shakespeare Library

In my painting, I surrounded the pheasants with tasty plants that heighten the bird’s culinary associations. These plants have the dual significance of being favorite food sources for pheasants, and they are flora mentioned by Shakespeare. I included seventeenth-century cutlery with ivory handles carved to depict Queen Elizabeth I, Richard III, Edward IV, and Henry VIII.[3]

I meet with a Shakespeare advisor, ornithologist, and botanist every month to review each facet of my Birds of Shakespeare project. Harriet Rix, an Oxford and Cambridge-educated biochemist and botanist, corrects the technicalities of my plant illustrations, such as leaf shape, petal formation, color, and stem structure. Harriet is also helping me navigate the tricky task of capturing how each plant may have looked in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

When I began the pheasant painting, I was excited that I could easily find plant references in my backyard and purchased an ear of corn to use as a model. I confidently submitted my painting to Harriet for review. To my surprise, she told me that the variety of corn Shakespeare was familiar with looked more like wheat. I combed through the British Book Illustrations Collection for illustrations of corn, which confirmed her description:

Illustration of corn that looks more like wheat
An illustration of corn by Sir William Cockburne of Langtoun Knight (1627). Folger Shakespeare Library

The corn represented in my painting is maize, which was first harvested in Oaxaca, Tehuacan, Mexico, 10,000 years ago and was brought to Europe via Spain in 1493.[4] It was introduced to England by Shakespeare’s lifetime and was even described in Gerard’s Herbal as “Turky corne,” but it would have been a little-known novelty to the general public.[5]

My Birds of Shakespeare project is ever evolving. My pheasant painting is an example of an artwork that requires revisions months after completion. Soon, the ear of corn in my painting will be accompanied by sprigs of Shakespeare’s better-known, wheat-like corn.

ear of corn
Maize was a little-known novelty in Elizabethan England.

[1] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871).

[2] Shakespeare, William. “The Winter’s Tale.” The Norton Anthology. 2nd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus. New York: W.W Norton, 2008. 3106. Print.

[3] Set of 14 knives. Object 454-1869. Victoria and Albert Museum

[4] “The Natural History of Maize,” Encyclopedia.com. https://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/natural-history-maize. Accessed on April 4, 2022.

[5] Gerard, J. Gerard’s Herbal. Studio Editions Ltd. (Guernsey: The Guernsey Press Co Ltd., 1994), Pg. 25.

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