Every year on our farm, we strive to try something different—a new type of winter squash, red and black currant bushes for making jam, or heirloom grape tomatoes in reds, pinks, or yellows. We also enjoy being adventuresome in the livestock aspect of the farm as well.
Some of these experimental projects stick, like our first two sheep Sweet and Heart (purchased in 2001) now multiplied into a diversified dairy sheep flock of 80 or so individuals. But other projects meet their finale at the butcher block, like the year we tried having a flock of geese. Between the biting, chasing, and intimidating me and the other birds, they topped it off by destroying plastic equipment and eating a screened door. No more geese for me, though I can honestly say we tried it.
This year’s poultry diversification project is still on the fence as far as continuance for next year…or should I say hopefully IN the fence. After much cajoling, pleading, and prodding from friends, I finally got brave and tried raising pheasants.
I was at L&M Fleet one day, picking up the last of their turkey poults to beef up the crew I had hatched myself from our heritage breed Jersey Buff turkeys. And there, in a silver stock tank next to the turkelets, was a swarming little huddle of pheasant chicks. A soft, light chocolate brown with black and white racing stripes, they moved like avian chipmunks, darting back and forth with the fierce stare of their beady black eyeballs.
“Don’t you need a game farm license to raise pheasants?” I asked the attendant. This had been my usual excuse for declining previous engagement with these critters in the past.
“Actually, you don’t,” he informed me, “if you’re going to butcher them to eat or use them to train your dog, there’s no game farm license required.”
A little lump settled down towards my heart. Now my excuse was no good. I called back to the farm, and we talked it over a bit. Yes, we thought we had some ideas for housing. Yes, I could just get a few to try it. Yes…well…guess it was time. That day I went home with a box of turkeys, a box of future laying hens, and a box of 16 pheasants.
There is a reason that the Latin name for chickens is Avis Domesticus. They learn the routines of human care. They can be trained to eat from your hand, come inside to roost at night, and let you reach beneath their warm, soft bellies for eggs. Pheasants, on the other hand, are anything but domesticated. Reach in to change a waterer or fill a feeder, and they were all crammed as far away in the brooder box as possible. At three days old, they were starting to fly, which meant we had to lay a screened door on top of their box to keep them from being supreme escape snacks for the dogs or dinner for the cat.
But even with the best precautions, those little pheas-lettes were determined to break free. Lift the screened door a crack to reach a feeder and one would catapult all the way over to the washing machine. Then it would be a frantic scurry through the laundry, over the chairs, and into the closet before the little screamer would be in hand and back into the box. And pheasants can scream!
Eventually, the crew was ready to graduate to the outdoors. We began with a hardware cloth-covered chicken tractor sitting on a very level piece of lawn. I brought the little fiesties branches and curly tunnels of birch bark to play in. They ran in laps and bounced off the sides, but at least they stayed inside.
All day in late July, the interns and I had been preparing their space in the big chicken coop. We strung bird netting over the top of the fence, secured together with zip-ties and fishing line. The teenaged pheasants would have their own little door to enter their own little part of the coop, separate from the other birds (we learned early on that pheasants and chickens don’t mix well, nor do pheasants and turkeys). Once the crew was big enough not to fit through chicken wire, they were released into their new home. They promptly ran to the furthest corner and tried desperately to hide.
Now, there is much to admire in a pheasant. The brilliant sheen and array of color in the male plumage complements the speckled browns of the females. They have great flight strength and are good foragers. And they’re tasty! But pheasants are not in the habit of getting along well with each other. At first, I tried to lock them in the coop at night for safety, like the chickens and turkeys. The pheasants thought this was a horrible situation and wanted to pull out each other’s feathers, so now the little door just stays open, and the wily birds dart in and out as they please for food, water, and shelter from heavy rains.
To help the birds feel more at home in their enclosed yard and to offer space to hide from one another, every so often I’ll take the pruning shears and trim of willow, chokecherry, and tag alder branches along the side of the road, pile it onto the back of the utility golf cart, and drag the awkward assortment into the pheasant pen. Taking each branch and pushing it into the soil makes for “instant habitat” mimicking brush and small bushes. The pheasants scurry through the branches, pull on leaves, and climb as high as possible, seeming quite pleased with the instant habitat…but not the mesh ceiling on a five-foot fence.
One day, I came to the pen to find a female pheasant sitting on top of the mesh which was bowed down like a great trampoline. She looked at me with her big black eyes as if to say, “Oops, it wasn’t supposed to work out this way.” Somehow, she had found a hole in the mesh just big enough to pop through.
Not having the powers to levitate, catching the bird was a challenge. Finally, our sheep dog Lena chased her out of the potato patch and into a machine shed, where we caught her beneath a hay rake. Her little heart pounded, but she was safely returned to her comrades. No, I wasn’t trying to raise pheasants for fox dinners, either.
Then yesterday, the great pheasant escape happened. Grandpa and I were filling waterers and hauling feed, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed movement outside the pheasant pen. Here was one of the males, pacing…pacing…pacing, hoping upon all hope to push his way through the metal fence back to his friends, but all in vain.
It might have made a hilarious home video. Me and Grandpa, crashing through the brush, roadrunner pheasant in the lead—all around the chicken pen, all around the pole barn, down the lane past the old plough. The little bird always stayed at least two yards ahead of us, those speedy little legs shaming our longer ones.
Then we lost him in the woods, the colorful camouflage making it impossible to see the pheasant amidst branches, roots, and trunks. “He’ll come back,” Grandpa assured, and I reluctantly slunk off to the rest of chores. What would the neighbor’s think? Surely someone would turn us in for not having a game farm license and releasing pheasants. We found the new hole in the mesh and fixed it before anyone else could escape.
When we returned (this time with a green fish net in hand), there he was—pacing…pacing…pacing, trying to reach his friends. I crept up alongside, but the colorful streak made a dash back to the woods and was gone. “Quick!” I hollered to Grandpa. “Get Lena!” Then, with stealthy determination, I crept about the corners of the wooded area, hoping for a fleeting glimpse of tail, a burst of wings, or a bright red face.
As I circled back, he was at the fence again, and the pursuit renewed. Along the edge of the turkey yard fence we scurried, through the open space of the lawn, the back in the brush by the trailer. I could hear Grandpa approaching with the golf cart, an excited Lena in toe. As our English Shepherd bounded around the corner, the pheasant panicked and hesitated one moment—one moment too long. I had the net on top and the wiggley-squiggley bird in hand. Victory!
The missing pheasant was duly returned to his friends, where he was still safely being kept this morning. Lena wanted to teach the bird a lesson for escaping, but she’s happy he’s “where he ought to be” now. They need to get a bit bigger before they’re ready for the dinner table, but this crew of pheasants sure has given me a run of adventures. And I don’t doubt it’s not over yet. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com