Brown Eared Pheasant at Xuanzhong Temple, Shanxi

Xuanzhong Temple in Shanxi is the best-known place in the world to view Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum. A recent visit by British birder Mark Havenhand (see comment below) stimulated me to update my report about my trip to Xuanzhong. Have you been to Xuanzhong? Help birders by leaving a comment below. — Craig Brelsford

by Craig Brelsford

I went to Xuanzhong Temple in December and January to photograph Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum.

The temple in central Shanxi, China sits in a gorge at an elevation of 1000 m (3,280 ft.). The hills are covered with trees that the locals call baishu (cypress). The setting is picturesque.

The air was bitterly cold; as low as -20°C (-4°F). Bright sunshine made the days cheerful. The temple flock of Brown Eared Pheasant appeared every day.

Elaine Du and I caught an 8 a.m. flight from Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai to Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi. From Taiyuan Airport, we drove our rental car west about an hour through Jiaocheng to Xuanzhong Temple (37.563877, 112.078460).

We found the Brown Eared Pheasant immediately. They were on a little bridge spanning a frozen stream at the bottom of the gorge. Also around the bridge were north China species Plain Laughingthrush Pterorhinus davidi, Chinese Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus lepidus lepidus, and Red-billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythroryncha brevivexilla.

In the following days I noted other taxa representative of north-central China: Chinese Nuthatch Sitta villosa villosa, Eurasian Nuthatch S. europaea sinensis, Songar Tit Poecile montanus stoetzneri, Coal Tit Periparus ater pekinensis, and Beijing Babbler Rhopophilus pekinensis.

Many birders balk at ticking semi-wild birds, but if you want an easy tick of Brown Eared Pheasant, then Xuanzhong Temple is the place to go. Note that both Mark Havenhand and I had wild Brown Eared Pheasant far from the temple on the road between Xuanzhong and Jiaocheng.


Xuanzhong Temple (37.563877, 112.078460) is in central Shanxi province (red) in north-central China. The site is 1120 km (690 mi.) northwest of Shanghai. I visited the site in December and January 2012–13. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)
Xuanzhong Temple dates from the 400s. Like many Buddhist temples in China, Xuanzhong serves as a sanctuary for wild birds. Xuanzhong is the best-known place in the world for viewing Brown Eared Pheasant. (Craig Brelsford)
Xuanzhong Temple
Main viewing area for Brown Eared Pheasant. Xuanzhong Temple lies in a gorge in the foothills of the Lüliang Mountains. The elevation is 1000 m (3,280 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Road to Xuanzhong
Road leading from Jiaocheng to Xuanzhong Temple. For views of Brown Eared Pheasant in a more wild setting, drive or walk this road. Here both Mark Havenhand (comment below) and I noted wild Brown Eared Pheasant, along with numerous other species. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant
Birders visit Xuanzhong Temple to view semi-wild flocks of Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum. The species is endemic to north China. Xuanzhong Temple is at the center of its range, which covers the Lüliang Mountains of Shanxi plus adjacent Hebei and Shaanxi. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant
Brown Eared Pheasant is listed by the IUCN as Vulnerable. ‘Its range,’ the IUCN writes, ‘has been fragmented by habitat loss, and isolated populations are at risk from further forest loss and other pressures. Outside nature reserves, the threats include deforestation for agriculture and urban development, and habitat degradation due to logging and livestock-grazing.’ About 17,000 Brown Eared Pheasant are thought to exist (BirdLife International 2016). (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum
The pheasants show little fear of man. I was able to achieve intimate closeups such as this …
Brown Eared Pheasant
… and this. (Craig Brelsford)
Man feeding pheasant
A man feeds Brown Eared Pheasant. We daily saw local people hand-feeding the pheasants and setting out maize for them. Some birders balk at viewing semi-wild birds, but Xuanzhong offers guaranteed views of a species hard to find elsewhere. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant
Brown Eared Pheasant perches on a cypress branch. The pheasants are semi-wild. They range freely, retiring at night to the hills and each morning gliding dramatically down to the floor of the gorge. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant
Brown Eared Pheasant likely has been present at Xuanzhong for hundreds of years. (Craig Brelsford)
Pheasant and sparrows
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus fly in front of Brown Eared Pheasant. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum
Brown Eared Pheasant exercising its wings. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum
Brown Eared Pheasant dancing. (Craig Brelsford)
Long-tailed Rosefinch
If not for the pheasants, few birders would visit Xuanzhong Temple. The temple does however offer a sampling of the birds of north central China. Here is Chinese Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus lepidus lepidus, male. (Craig Brelsford)
Long-tailed Rosefinch
Chinese Long-tailed Rosefinch, female. (Craig Brelsford)
Coal Tit
Coal Tit Periparus ater pekinensis. This race shows a short crest. P. a. pekinensis ranges from southern Liaoning to Shanxi, Hebei, and Shandong. (Craig Brelsford)
Willow Tit or Songar Tit
Songar Tit Poecile montanus stoetzneri, currently classified as a race of Willow Tit. (Craig Brelsford)
Chinese Nuthatch
Chinese Nuthatch Sitta villosa is a small nuthatch with a prominent white supercilium and patchy black eye-stripe. The nominate race is found in Hebei, Beijing, and Shanxi. (Craig Brelsford)
Eurasian Nuthatch
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea sinensis. This subspecies is characterized by its reddish-brown underparts. In the bitter cold, the nuthatch was inspecting the smallest cracks in the bark for its food. (Craig Brelsford)
Beijing Babbler
Beijing Babbler Rhopophilus pekinensis foraging in the snow. (Craig Brelsford)
Plain Laughingthrush
The aptly named Plain Laughingthrush Pterorhinus davidi. (Craig Brelsford)
Red-billed Blue Magpie
Red-billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythroryncha brevivexilla. (Craig Brelsford)
Common Pheasant
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus on the road to the temple. (Craig Brelsford)


BirdLife International 2016. Crossoptilon mantchuricum. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22679299A92809690. (Accessed: 26 March 2024)

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