If you object to shooting game birds, but like the taste of pheasant terrine, try thinking of your quarry as a kind of Chinese chicken, and of pheasant hunting as an extension of the ideological struggle.
Such illustrious gunners as George Washington imported pheasant from Europe, but those less-resilient birds did not adapt to this country. Then the U.S. consul-general in Shanghai shipped 21 Chinese pheasants to Oregon in 1881, and the flamboyant interlopers began to spread across the northern tier of the United States.
The American ringneck pheasant, a slight genetic variation of its Chinese ancestor, has long since reached the Atlantic Ocean. In the East he lives mostly above an imaginary line extending from the tip of the Chesapeake Bay to central Illinois, which eliminates Virginia, and most of Maryland and West Virginia, as prime pheasant-hunting territory. Pheasant can be found in all three states, however, where seasons last through January.
Hunting domestically bred stock on private preserves close to Washington is also possible, for a price. But the best nearby pheasant-hunting lies in southeastern Pennsylvania, only three hours to the north, where corn and soybeans fatten birds for winter -- and for the table -- and hedgerows and weedy lots provide shelter. There, the solitary hunter who knows the pheasant's habits can find shooting in open, rolling farmland.
This November I hunted a Bucks County farm owned by a friend. Budding winter wheat offered no cover for pheasant, but my friend's acreage abutted unposted land where corn had recently been harvested. One stand had been left untouched, two dozen rows marching over the crest of a hill. The birds have usually moved to dusting grounds by early afternoon, when I set out, or to denser cover, but they sometimes stay in fields through the day if nothing interrupts their feeding.
I walked the edge of the standing corn, the barrel of my .12 gauge pump shotgun pointing skyward. I was using No. 6 loads with a modified choke for fast shooting over the tops of the dried stalks. A capitalist running dog, unless trained to work close, will put up birds out of range; a party of hunters can spread out and comb overgrown meadow, but a collective effort isn't necessary.
Pheasant, larger than grouse and slower fliers, are deceptive targets nonetheless, about two-thirds of their length being tailfeathers. They are capable of 35 miles an hour after an explosive, colorful rise. Many a hunter has listened to their jeering cackle after his shots have only ruffled their plumage.
Soybean fields are easier to hunt, providing clean, sweeping shots, but corn has the advantage of hiding the hunter as well as the quarry. Pheasants have excellent hearing and eyesight, and will often double back and pass a pursuer, hugging the ground between the rows and moving with surprising speed. They are wily, aggressive birds, though not nearly as plentiful as they were a few years ago, their fate linked to the decline of the family farm. The efficiency of corporate agriculture has eliminated the dense fencerows, fallow fields and "unproductive" cover where pheasants flourish; insecticides have also cut into the population.
The report of a shotgun less than a mile away suggested that pheasant were at least in the neighborhood. (Three shots fired in rapid succession, as these were, usually mean the bird has escaped with every feather intact.) Expectation was heightened by the sight of scratchings, droppings and pecked-over ears of corn. The imagined encounter with the bird itself -- the sudden flurry and precipitous rise, the gun snapping into position -- engenders a breathless state of readiness that rarely coincides with the flush.
The rows of corn ended at a strand of barbed wire overgrown with blackberry bushes. Beyond lay open pasture. Pheasant will not cross open ground, but prefer almost any available cover to the radical alternative of flight. I followed the fencerow downhill. The blackberry tangle merged with a field of bracken and sumac; on the far side lay a new housing development.
I worked the field counterclockwise, walking slowly, pausing often, watched by two horses in the adjacent pasture. I stopped at the corner of the field, thinking of the irony of hunting pheasant in rural Bucks within sight of a Tudor split-level. At that moment I heard rustling to my left, followed by the furious beating of wings. The pheasant catapulted out of the weeds and rode the wind directly away, an easy shot.
I missed him cleanly. Accustomed to hunting with an old .20 gauge side-by-side given to me by my father, I pulled the trigger again without bothering to pump a new shell into the breech, a recommended procedure if you want a second shot. Then another cock flushed directly behind me. By then I had a loaded gun, but the pheasant flew between me and the housing development, which, I assured myself, saved him.
The first pheasant sailed toward the bottom of the pasture. I followed him, and circled a thicket of blackberry and scrub oak a quarter of a mile in diameter. Then I plunged in. The blackberry thorns caught on clothes and gun, but the wineberry branches were much worse, studded with stilettos that can tear denim. Each time I paused, I could hear a body moving away in the leafy corridors below the thorns.
The bird clattered into the air, cackling indignantly. I fired through overhanging branches, and although he did not fall I knew he was hit. A wounded pheasant will not fly far, and alights in a steep decline rather than the long, gradual glide for which they are known. This one had taken his last stand in a copse near the cornfield, bounded by stubble and some tumbled beehives.
I flushed him out of the trees and shot him going away, bringing him to earth in a riot of down. Taking three shots to bag one pheasant is not exactly a great performance, and I regretted the condescension I had felt toward the unseen hunter heard earlier. My pheasant was only a season old, with short tail feathers and blunt, budding spurs on the backs of his legs. He weighed no more than two pounds. His coppery body, slashed with black and white, with iridescent green head and long eye tufts, was the most beautiful of any game bird I knew.
His crop was stuffed with corn. He would eventually find his way into an oven, mixed with a little cognac and port, and then into the crops of about a dozen delighted people.
The other cock I'd jumped waited in brushy woods on the far side of the meadow. I'd like to say that I magnanimously left him for another day; in fact, I stomped the brambles for an hour, and never saw him again.