The Pheasant – Not such a bird brain


I’m hanging out washing in the garden when I get the distinct impression that someone, or something, is watching me. Instinct tells me to look over my shoulder, and there he is, about three metres behind.

“Go away.” I ignore him and continue pegging laundry, but when I’ve finished and turn around, he’s edged two metres closer. If I reached out, I could touch him.
“I don’t have anything for you, and you’ve had quite enough already.”
My stalker takes a tentative step forward, then stops, head cocked to one side, thinking. A pheasant’s head is very small in relation to its body, suggesting a negligible brain inside, but this one clearly has enough mental band-with to reason that humans can be a soft-touch where food is concerned. Judging by the size of this specimen, half the village has been feeding him.

I walk back to the house, the pheasant strutting companionably by my side. I stop. He stops. If only my dog had walked to heel so calmly. We reach the back door and he looks at me expectantly.
“You’re not coming in. Go and pester someone else.”
He takes me at my word. Tom is back from university and my husband is working from home, so that’s two more humans to tap up for a meal.
“Mum, Phil’s banging on the window.”
“It’s not Phil, he’d be ancient by now. And this one looks different. Perhaps this is son of Phil.”

We stand by the French windows and consider the impatient diner on the other side. The pheasant raps on the pane, etching a pattern on the glass with his beak.
“Stop that!” I kneel down and tap back. The pheasant pauses and looks at me. Nose to beak with the bird, with a sliver of glass in between, I’m impressed by the complexity of his plumage. The neat, burnished feathers on his chest overlap like fish scales or a chain-mail vest. Those on his back are larger, tougher, ending in long, regal tail feathers. Between his folded wings, the colouring is much paler, like old, faded denim. Phil, last year’s resident pheasant, had a broken tail, but this one, so far, has evaded such injuries or accidents. Up close, I can admire the tiny black tufts over his ears, the brightness of his eyes and the softness of the feathers on his ample belly, which are fluttering in the bitter, east wind.
“We could give him something,” I say, wavering.
“He’s huge! What have you been feeding him. Ginster’s pasties?”
“Just normal bird-seed.”
This is true. But the pheasant has been hoovering up any spillage from the bird feeder, as well as food left out for himself. This would be fine, but the smaller birds who like to feed on the ground – the robins, sparrows and blackbirds – now have to compete with the enormous interloper. Should I be encouraging a pheasant in the garden or should I let him fend for himself? This is hardly an endangered species, unlike some of our garden birds which would perish without human help in the winter.
“I think we should call him Frank.” Tom suggests, heading for the kitchen.
“He looks like a Frank.” The pheasant squawks and stretches his wings.
So, Frank it is. We shouldn’t anthropomorphise, giving animals personalities; even Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit with his bright blue jacket admitted that, but inevitably we do. Being able to share our gardens with wild creatures is a privilege, even if sometimes they’re a pest. And our lives are all the richer for it.