A woman stopped me in the lane, to say she’d heard a bird in pain, I wondered if it was too late, to go there and investigate.
The woman had been distressed by what sounded like the thrashing of wings, in a field behind a tall hedge up at the top of the lane. I had an idea. The day was murky and damp but celandines and primroses in the hedgebank cancelled out the chill. From the lane, an instinctively animal sound – a panicky banging against something hard – could be heard. It might have been a trapped bird and it felt urgent enough to do something about, so there was a compulsion to trespass.
There was a way into the field through a little copse around a spring head, over a wire fence and then over a stile. The tattered pennants of maize plants were still in rows; they were last year’s cover crop for pheasants, who were attracted there by feeding stations. During a shoot, birds seeking refuge in the maize would be beaten, scared into the air, to fly towards the guns. It was one of those places that felt wrong.
Two or three hen pheasants rocketed away from the plastic drum feeders and a couple of cocks ran for cover. Beneath the feeders the ground was smoothed, flat as a dancefloor. Checking there was not a bird in distress or trapped inside the feed drum, I came to the realisation of what was going on. The pheasants were aware that, even though feeding had stopped months ago, there was still some seed inside the drum. They could get underneath and flap hard to put their heads through the hole – and the beating of their wings would also loosen some of the seeds inside, which then would fall through the hole for them to eat.
I like pheasants. It’s not their fault that millions of them are reared in captivity and released into the countryside every year to be shot or run over. It’s not their fault they have a devastating impact on reptiles, amphibians and other wildlife. Pheasants are learning survival skills, turning the system that exploits them to their advantage. Pheasants are smart.
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