I caught myself doing something I vowed I’d never do: stuffing a bird I’d just shot into my game vest without taking a moment to really look at it and appreciate it. My reason for taking that vow is twofold: One, good hunters never take the taking of game for granted. Two, because every pheasant or quail or grouse or duck is different, each offering some little – or big – note of individuality.
One day hunting in South Dakota this fall, we laughed at what we called the “armadillo” bird – one particular pheasant humped over, looking like he had iridescent armor, scooting into the brush as if he really believed we couldn’t see him, reminding us of armadillos encountered on southern quail hunts. Some birds’ movements stick in my mind, their jumpy head twitches, rigid bodies on blurred legs, eyeballs swiveling between pointing dog and tall-standing hunter. Unloading my vest, I pondered a bird with two stumpy tail feathers and another with an oddly thick ring of white neck feathers.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about pheasants is those feathers – the colors and patterns. Many of us eventually take their beauty for granted. Up close or in the hand, it seems absurd that we sometimes can’t see a rooster on the ground just a few feet away. It’s true, though, that nestled in the brush, he’s got some of the best camo around when his vivid blues and purples magically play into the multicolor light reflected by the burnished edges of corn or late season junipers. Hens’ camouflage is just as good, with its light and dark mottling vanishing into the world of tan leaves and brown mud.
Then there are the sounds. Not just the classic cackle, but the slapping rush of wings or the scrabbly sound of spurred feet racing across dried cattail stalks.
Speaking of feet, across from my desk two dried woodcock feet hang on my bulletin board and a huge goose foot dangles from a cord over a lamp. Feathers and tail fans sprout on all the shelves of my bookcase alongside a small turtle shell, a coyote jaw, some moose teeth and a rattlesnake rattle.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Men who wish to know about the world must learn about it in its particular details.” The body parts I’m looking at aren’t souvenirs or trophies. They are the bearers of detail and information that I have the privilege of accessing via my time in the field.
Nancy Anisfield, an outdoor photographer/writer, sporting dog enthusiast and bird hunter, serves on Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s National Board of Directors. She resides in Hinesburg, Vermont.