He's a Pheasant, Not a "Ditch Chicken"

On paper the ring-necked pheasant shouldn't be all that tough to kill. He's a predictable fellow, feeding around the same time each morning and afternoon and rarely straying more than 800 yards from his roost. So, he's far from the most elusive bird in the uplands, and when flushed he isn't the swiftest creature either. (Though if given time to accelerate, pheasants can top out around 60 mph, just 5 mph shy of the powerful mallard.)


And yet the pheasant is, in reality, a terrific challenge. He can confound experienced dogs of the noblest pedigree, and more than once I've seen him make a mockery of dogs with "NFC" in front of their names. Put a few blockers at the end of a field and you may bag a few birds, but the smart old roosters still make their escapes, either flushing 100 yards away or high-tailing it underfoot never to be seen.


Even when roosters flush in range the game is far from over. I bore witness to an accomplished sporting-clays shot missing rooster after rooster to the point of red-faced exasperation. He expended every shell in his vest and then several of mine, but never scratched a single burnt-orange feather. Compared to pass-shooting waterfowl or low-gun skeet, shooting a ringneck ought to be like bringing down a floating beach ballyet I miss him often enough to make it look routine. Do his colors confuse our vision? Perhaps it's his striking tail or guttural cackle that affects our senses. All I know is not a bird exists that can more quickly make a shotgun feel foreign in my hands.


Fortunately I occasionally get on target, because few upland birds rival the pheasant on the table. Terrific roasted whole or chopped, the breasts are impeccable sautéed in a thick cream sauce, pan fried with butter and olive oil or, best of all, baked in cheese and marinara sauce for my wife's pheasant parmesan. And the legs! Cooked at low heat with leftover broth or chicken stock, they make a soup that's only to be discussed in hushed tones.


Such flavor is enough to tempt a man into easing his truck toward the road's edge when pheasants are spotted filling their gizzardsbut of course that wouldn't be right. The pheasant is a bird to be taken on the wing. He has earned our respect, so much so that the term "ditch chicken" seems a tad derogatory. It suggests a dimwitted fowl easily brought to bag. We may never know why, but that just isn't true.


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