Mea Culpa

by Jane Routh

Today I killed a pheasant. No bumps under the wheels; in the mirror it lay on the road plump and shiny, one small black feather floating away. It was still there, still in perfect condition, when I drove back up the hill twenty minutes later. I saw a car coming downhill straddle the corpse so as not to squash it.

Most days there are bloody feathers somewhere along this road, attended by a couple of crows cleaning up. A dead pheasant is such a common sight round here, we call them suicidal, stupid. (All the same, I felt better when my corpse had disappeared a couple of hours later without trace. No mark on the road, no stray feathers: it hadn’t been run over. It must have simply been uplifted whole by some four- or two-legged creature with an eye to supper.)

I’ve been reading a lot about butchering and living on wild creatures. Concern over Arctic ice re-ignited my longstanding interest in the ‘quest’ for the North West Passage and Sir John Franklin’s failed attempt to find a way through the sea ice from east to west. That led me to accounts of those who went looking for Franklin’s lost ships, including Elisha Kent Kane’s journal from winters trapped in the ice – as must have happened to Franklin a few years before. Kane survived where Franklin did not, at least in part because he learned from the indigenous people of the north west Greenland coast how to live off the limited resources of that dark and frozen landscape.

As time goes on, Kane’s account shifts from rationing the ship’s supplies of flour and dried apples and salt pork and trapping the ship’s rats for food, to tales of capturing and butchering seal, walrus and polar bear. (Not that these new foods provided nutrition without mishap: “All our party sickened after feeding on the liver of a bear that we had killed; and a few weeks afterward, when we were tempted into a similar indulgence, we were forced to undergo the same penance.”) Kane’s increased contact with indigenous people and gradual respect for their survival skills (if not their traditions and culture) enabled his crew to secure enough food for many of them to survive the ills of scurvy and damage of frostbite and escape from their ice-stricken brigantine with sledges and small boats.

But after 443 pages of small type in the mind-set of the 1850s, it was time for Barry Lopez again. Arctic Dreams is a book which speaks afresh every time you re-read it. This time round, I discovered that polar bear liver contains toxic (to human beings) amounts of vitamin A, so no wonder it had Kane and his crew vomiting. In fact I was altogether more interested in Lopez’s chapter on polar bears, particularly his account of nineteenth century attitudes and actions towards them, which are horrific – two cubs shot, for the purpose of seeing whether it would distress their mother (It did. She “stood for some time moaning”.) “Killing polar bears”, writes Lopez, “became the sort of amusement people expected on an Arctic journey.”

That was the nineteenth century. For all that, Lopez continues “the craven taunting, the witless insensitivity, and the phoney sense of adventure… are not from another age.” Which brings me back to my dead pheasant – for, while our attitudes to polar bears may have swung right round into sentimentality now that we have taken away the ice on which they travel to hunt and into which they build dens to raise their cubs, our attitudes to pheasants are little different from “the witless insensitivity, and the phoney sense of adventure” which Lopez nails.

Mea culpa: fellow creatures are neither “stupid” nor “suicidal”. So what is going on with all those dead pheasants along our road? The meadows on the north side of the road slope down to a beck; beyond that, the land rises to rough moorland and scrub that’s used for a pheasant shoot. The birds are bred to be killed. Trays of the small, smooth, almost shiny, olive-coloured eggs are set and incubated. Hundreds of small yellow-grey balls of fluff hatch out, immediately able to run around, peck and eat. They feed from trays, drink from drinkers and fledge within a few weeks. Able to fly up into trees to roost, they’re released on the moor; grain at feeding stations helps keep up the population density.

Why don’t they just fly away? Because where they are born is the centre of their world. If the pressure on territory is great, they won’t fly for miles looking for somewhere new, but will just move to the edge of that territory. (I remember advice given with my first few geese: pen them up for ten days and after that they’ll be “hearthed”. They can wander freely after that, but will come back in the evening to the place at the centre of their map.)

So. There are many pheasants around, their population artificially stocked. But why always on the road, and always being run over? The fan of wing feathers lifted from the tarmac by the breeze is strongly coloured: the corpses are usually cock birds. What can the road signify from their point of view?

I’ve watched cock birds, one either side of a wire fence, posturing (heads down, tails up) threatening to lunge at each other, the fence appropriated as a territorial marker – a very useful one, since they can’t actually do each other damage through the wire. They’ll keep this up so long, I don’t think I’ve ever watched one of these performances through to a conclusion. Is the road a territorial edge? Is that why there are so many cock birds on it – live ones, as well as the road kill?

Thinking back, my pheasant was a black one – one of the recently introduced Italian ones which are said to be more “flighty” and so offer better sport than the lumbering purple-brown ones which will whirr low over a hedgerow and down again as soon as possible. When you walk across pasture or through woods, pheasants will protest and clatter up into a tree long before you’re anywhere near them, yet even a flighty one didn’t fly away from my car. But he wasn’t on his own: a second cock made it into the verge. The late lamented bird could well have been in a stand-off with the second cock, and maybe so strongly determined that the road marked his territory that he went into a stand-off with the wheeled creature coming his way downhill. Maybe less suicidal than determinedly defensive?

If the moor were not stocked with birds to shoot, there’d be no more pheasant corpses on the road than there are – let’s say – red-legged partridges. Their population would fall (they are after all ground nesters, and many creatures – stoats, badgers, foxes all enjoy an egg for breakfast). The canniest would survive. The road would cease to be a significant boundary. We’d see them rarely, and when we did, we’d say how beautiful their band of dark green iridescent neck feathers…

Who knows. But we do know that a pheasant will have its own creaturely view of the world. Our view of its world is absurd: we arrange at great expense for it to come to life, in order to have the “amusement” of killing it, and that’s been going on so long we don’t even register the distant pop pop pop of a Saturday morning shoot. “A phoney sense of adventure”… that phrase of Lopez’s is what started this rain of thought: not from another age indeed.

Jane Routh has published 3 collections of poetry with smith|doorstop, and most recently Falling into Place, a prose book celebrating wildlife, work and weather in the uplands of N W England.