The Swamp Pheasant

The rooster lived in a swamp full of slough grass, cattails, and stunted trees. As soon as I entered his home, I came upon a patch of matted grass and a small pile of dung pellets, a sign that a deer had recently bedded down at that spot. Moments later, a doe stood up less than twenty yards away, gave me a glance, let out a snort, turned her head, lifted her tail, and bounded off toward a thicket that grew along the margins of the bog.

I walked into the morass, every step a struggle.

While busting through some thistles, I flushed a hen. She flew toward a harvested corn field on the far side of the thicket.

As soon as the hen took flight, a rooster started to cackle somewhere near the center of the swamp.

The rooster had chosen the safest place in the swamp to lie low. Anything approaching him had to first pass through water, rough horsetail, a stand of thistles, and deadfall. Despite all of the obstacles between me and the bird, I decided to go after him.

I tried to be quiet as I trudged through the mire. But it was impossible not to make noise. I splashed water. I cracked small branches. I stepped on rough horsetail that made an odd popping sound when I flattened it underfoot. Atop the occasional low mound of dry grass, I saw further evidence of where the doe, or other deer, had bedded down. I realized that the wetland did not just offer safe haven to pheasants, it was a deer refuge as well.

Eventually I gave up trying to be so quiet. But the more noise I made, the more I felt like a fool. I thought to myself: this is ridiculous, surely the rooster will run or fly before I get within range. But to my surprise, he did neither.

I walked right up on him. As a matter of fact, I nearly stepped on him. He had hunkered down in some grass surrounded by fallen timber. When he saw me standing only a few feet away, he shook his head, as if in disbelief, then he went aloft with a loud whoosh and a horrified cackle. I knocked him down with the second shot.

I found him thirty yards away, dead, lying with his head and breast in the water and his tail feathers pointing straight up toward the sky. I recognized right away that this was no ordinary bird. He was big, easily in excess of three pounds; and old, probably much older than the three-year average lifespan of a pheasant in the wild. Plus, he possessed the longest tail feathers, thickest plumage, and longest spurs of any rooster I had ever taken.

After gathering him up, I wondered why such a wise, old bird had allowed me to get so close. And then it dawned on me: he thought I was the doe.

The pheasant had probably shared the swamp with the doe for years. He knew the doe, knew her sounds, and knew that she posed no threat. And he had opted to live in close proximity to her because her sense of smell, sight, and hearing had helped to keep him safe. The rooster also understood on an instinctual level that a real threat approached quietly, with stealth, and with slow, methodical footfalls. My trek across the swamp had been anything but quiet, stealthy or methodical. Instead, I had made sounds similar to those of the doe when she crossed the swamp. Only when I stood a couple of feet away from him did the rooster recognize I was not the doe. And by then it was too late.

In the end, the doe, the swamp pheasant’s long-time neighbor, had been his demise.

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