Our gallant wild male pheasant, horns up, chest puffed for maximum sex appeal.
Making it through the winter.
Visiting wild turkeys may have advertised this spot as a good family eatery.
Mr. Universe struts his stuff.
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Vermont Feral Pheasants Make a Stand
And One Lonely Boy Looks for Love, on My Front Lawn (May 2011)
"Sex, Please. Sex, please. Check me out. I'm a study in avian studliness. If you're a female pheasant with a pulse, I would like to give you a batch of chicks. If you look anything like a female pheasant, let's talk"
Those, I imagine, are the approximate thoughts of a wild male ring-necked pheasant I've come to know well this spring. For the past month or so he's been wantonly advertising for a mate on our front lawn. His customary habit of extreme wariness has given way to a case of blinding, bird-brained desire. (No derision intended.)
Against steep odds, an unknown number of ring-neck pheasants have been making a living in and around our rural Vermont neighborhood the past few years. They are non-natives who do better in the windy plains of North America, where they rely on bare patches of ground through the winter to scratch for food. Vermont snow depths are tough on them. Word is that some ring-necks escape from or are let go by breeders now and then to serve as game birds.
Last summer my family and I were treated to the sight of a line of pheasant youngsters following Mom across our driveway and down into the tree-lined border of our field. We spotted them in small groups partaking of drops under our high-hung birdfeeder. Our land had already become a neighborhood hangout for both wild turkeys and the occasional free-range domestic fowl -- on walkabout from a farm up the road. I liked watching them all.
Compared to smaller birds, the turkeys would cruise the communal feeder area like great-finned cars at a 1950's drive-in. They were also attracted in droves to our acres of fields which rough out a little between once-annual brush-hugging. They harbor an abundance of wild, seedy, buggy goodness and attract a variety of winged creatures. I'm reminded of one mid-summer night, the air velvety and and perfumed, when the back field was so densely spangled with fireflies that they formed a haze of winking lights a few feet above the ground. A flash mob. Convened not with cell phones, but pheromones.
This spring the courting male pheasant keeps returning to the feeder area. His love calls begin with a thunderous beating of wings followed by two piercing squawks that actually sound like "rut, rut," as might be spoken by a raspy rooster. He is, on one hand, a noble and exotically dressed prince for these parts, decked out in shades of ruby red, shimmering copper, blue-green and white. On the other hand, he's an ardently goofy character.
In one display the pheasant inflates his chest to cartoonish proportions, slowly turning to show his flashy head and tail gear -- a Mr.Universe dressed by Lady Gaga's stylist. Sometimes he'll perform a lordly back-and-forth strut. When he takes a break, which isn't often, he'll make a running lift-off, and do a low glide down to the broad sheltering skirts of a large pine in the tree line below the house. When restored, he'll follow the line back up, rock-hopping his way along an old stone wall. He once showed an abiding interest in a neighbor's comely white domestic turkey.
Since I came to understand the pheasants' winter odds of survival in Vermont, I began leaving rations of recommended food. I didn't want to bait the pheasants or cultivate a dependence. I just wanted to help nourish these non-native underdogs through a rough winter. Come spring I was loathe to withdraw the food despite well-publicized warnings from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department to halt all bird feeding that time of year. The intent is to protect homeowners from dangerous visits by hungry bears awakening from hibernation. And to protect the bears from resulting persecution.
As I consider my on-going breach of this spring bird feeding ban, my wandering mind conjures a towering, uniformed Vermont Game Warden, arms crossed, legs slightly akimbo. He has the weary, tight-eyed look of someone who is paid to suffer fools on a regular basis. But, wait. He seems faintly amused, too. I now imagine he's recalling a nearby Montpelier resident who, one spring night recently, ran out onto his lawn without a stitch of clothing on to chase off a pair of black bears who were ransacking birdfeeders that he knew ought to have been taken down. Then the bears tried to ransack him. The man made a narrow escape. The star of that drama, as some may recall, was Peter Shumlin, the governor of our fine state. He himself volunteered the story to the media. It did not play to his advantage. At a time like that, no one remembers your better moments.
I decided to take my chances with bears and game wardens to level the odds against the pheasants. In addition to scarce food, the birds face many threats here on the hill. Hawks, fox. The occasional coyote. Cars, too. Early one morning I spotted a dead female pheasant by the side of the road. No predator had gotten to her yet. I stopped the car and gently picked her up, absent any plan beyond that.
The body felt like a hank of spun silk in my bare hands. Unlike the showy males, female plumage is made up of neutral tones. At close range I was able to notice the lovely graphic patterning of the taupe, cream and black feathers. It clicked that I'd seen similar motifs in Native American pottery and basketry. I took the body to a nearby patch of tall brush and left it there. Better that she become a scavenger's meal of pheasant-under-grass than a desecrated blob of bird pulp in the road. Better for me, anyway.
It seems hardly fair for breeders, if they do, to introduce animals into the wild here that aren't expected to make it for long on their own. But consider that Vermont's wild turkeys, once scarce here, have thrived in no small part due to a modicum of ingenuity, and also by living near farms. There they have access to manure piles, crop field gleanings and bits of animal feed. Take a clever bunch of Great Escapees, add the prospect of milder Vermont winters, throw in some surreptitiously provided pheasant chow, and who knows what feats of adaptation may occur.
Muck around as we humans might, in the end, Nature will decide what is natural.
All photos and text by Ricka McNaughton. All rights reserved.