Purloined Pheasants

Wherein sins are committed, and culinary atoned for.

[By Robert DeMott]

In my dotage, I rarely hunt ring-necked pheasants. The flatland areas of central and western Ohio once held a reasonable population when family farms were more abundant and had not yet been plowed fence-to-fence or sold for development, but the hilly, timbered, soil-poor southeastern part of the state, where I have lived since 1969, has no resident population at all (and as far as I can tell never did), so those gaudy Asian baubles never exerted a substantial pull on my mature ambition as they have to so many others who have told their pheasant-inspired tales and stories.

I am not so ignorant that I don’t know what a pheasant is, however, and over the course of six decades of upland gunning I’ve pursued them just enough to recognize some indisputable facts: they often run like jackrabbits and flush out of range; they can seduce an otherwise steady and reliable bird dog into some cursed byways and missteps; and they are surprisingly easy to miss, so much so that I still recall my exasperation at blowing two wide-open shots at my first rooster when I was 14 or so and just setting out as a hunter in Southwestern Connecticut. My setter, Suzie, looked disgusted. It was a grave lesson on the importance of leading flying game, one that I would only partly master, and when I did, would seem more like luck than skill, though who can ever know for certain where the dividing line between those categories really falls?

But despite my adversarial relationship with pheasants, every few years or so, to give my dogs some work during downtimes or layoffs, or to stir myself out of between-seasons boredom, I order some pen-raised roosters at a nearby farm. In A North Country Life, Sydney Lea says that “anyone who knows pheasants by way of some hunting preserve doesn’t know pheasants at all.” Of course, traipsing a preserve isn’t hunting, just as following the stock truck isn’t trout fishing, but now and then some planted birds in thick cover give my dogs exercise and experience, especially important for the youngest of my setters. And besides, we come to “know” pheasants in many different ways, each according to his or her own lights.

“Pheasants remain stranger than fiction, too beautiful to be stuffed into a slot.” — Datus Proper, Pheasants of the Mind

I spend considerable mental energy thinking about, dreaming over, talking about, and reading up on ruffed grouse and woodcock, the two staples in my eastern upland bird-hunting life, but I don’t lavish that kind of attention on pheasants. I confess, however, to enjoying the occasional pheasant-hunting feature in this or that sporting magazine, or chuckling over one of those outdoor television programs that show the birds jumping up 70 yards ahead of dogs and shooters and winging it untouched toward the skyline. Oh, beware those devilish pheasants, I tell the Setter Sisters, Maddie and Meadow, who share the couch with me. Friends of mine who hunt Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Montana, accuse me of missing a great deal about pheasants’ allure, but their claims have never been fully convincing.

I’m not a purist in the matter of native fauna and don’t hold anything against the showy bird for its being a foreign import, but then I’ve always been ho-hum about their existence no matter where they’re found. Except for the ubiquitous signature flying pheasant I saw mounted on the wall of an outdoor store in Nebraska or a crossroads convenience store in Kansas (where they’re invariably mounted behind the cash register), pheasants have been frequently invisible to me, despite the Herculean efforts of Pheasants Forever to naturalize them in our upland landscapes and lexicons. That is until recently when, after an outing at a local game farm, I looked closely at the resplendent plumage of a male pheasant and realized that perhaps I had never truly seen one.

The shifting yellowish light that winter afternoon played on its lower cape. Ornithologists describe the rump as “pale grayish,” and at a distance I suppose that’s accurate. But up close with the bird weighty in hand, the wash of sunlight highlighted even this pen-raised bird’s true palette of colors: russets, reds, ochers, browns, ambers, tans, gray blues, and blacks, a spectrum of seriously mind-bending hues, all playing off each other so that the object in hand, even if it were a substitute for its wild kin, seemed alive, electric with pulse whenever wind ruffled feathers.

In The Unnatural Enemy, Vance Bourjaily wondered “if the whole wild patterning and color of the Oriental ornament wasn’t learned from the red, white, lavender, and rose of a cock pheasant.” Which only proves, I suppose, that words cannot do justice to a rooster’s dazzling prom clothes. Had pheasants been around North America when Audubon was afoot (the foundational importation from China to Oregon’s Willamette Valley occurred in 1881), he would have done their livery justice; now only a painter with the eye of a Pre-Raphaelite can capture the male ring-neck’s exquisite feathered tapestry or, for that matter, the subdued but no less perfect whorls of tan, buff, cream, and black that the hen claims as her own. Fly tiers and hackle experts have even named some of the rooster’s most unusually patterned feathers “church windows” and “almond hearts.” That’s probably more detail than I need to know, but it does prove that, clearly, in the matter of pheasants, I had become jaded not to have more fully appreciated their spectatorial riot earlier in life.

Sensory experience is a pinprick, like the stab of a rooster’s spur. It sticks you when you least expect it and turns out to be not an end in itself but a beginning of something else. A couple of minutes of ogling that bird, stroking its feathers and ruby red cheek skin, drawing my hand along the length of its ladder-barred tail, opened a path to a moment 50 years earlier, to a memory that had been shoved in a corner so long I had almost entirely forgotten it until I began following its tantalizing threads. “May one write about hunting and not write about deaths?” Vance Bourjaily asks. The answer is obvious. Soon enough I found that I did have a pheasant story after all, though it wasn’t in all regards heroic or uplifting. It was part of a larger complex of events and emotions, however, that cannot be separated, because everything was an index of something else.

Late November 1963. I was in the fall semester of my junior year at Assumption College, a small all-male Catholic institution in eastern Massachusetts. The college, then recently sprung up in America, was the eventual by-product of a religious order called Augustinians of the Assumption, formed in 1845 in Nîmes, France, by Father Emmanuel d’Alzon, whose particular focus was on educating and developing the “whole” man’s spiritual, intellectual, and moral faculties. To say that I wasn’t getting the most out of college or living up to my potential as outlined by the founder’s vision is an understatement. I was the first on my father’s side of our family to attend college, so I felt pressure to succeed, yet at the same time I was woefully unprepared for and often resistant to rigorous collegial life. My main preoccupation was playing ice hockey; much of the rest of the time I either daydreamed about hunting and fishing or read as much modern and contemporary fiction as I could get my hands on. A few months earlier, I had switched my major from Biology to English, and I was proving to be little better at the latter than I was at the former, though my love of reading kept me going.