CLIFTON, N.S. — Living rural, retired, and petless in central Nova Scotia as we do on a well-treed multi-flora half-hectare, I get to see and hear a lot of birds through the seasons. The sparrows in particular become quite tame and trusting.
But there’s one recent newcomer I hear but so far haven’t laid eyes on. Almost every time I work in my downhill veggie plot, hoeing weeds or shoveling pathways, it calls from the nearest hedge or from the field beyond. If I didn’t know better I’d say the sound came from a rusty gate hinge.
It’s definitely not our native ruffed grouse. Besides being vocally quiet, it’s a woodland denizen seldom seen around farms. The only time they’re noisy is during the fall mating season when males announce their territory by “drumming” – beating the air with stubby wings. And neither is my squawker a guinea fowl, which someone introduced hereabouts last year.
Though loud-mouthed for its size, it’s bolder and more visible. And it’s not a Hungarian partridge, which I haven’t seen here for decades. Which leaves only the native bobwhite quail, too small to call so loudly.
Actually, my two-note squawker is a male ringneck pheasant, that handsome, long-tailed, metallic green and reddish fellow with the white neckband. Beth and I first became aware of Sir Ring-neck last year while sitting in our new porch swing that a cousin of mine made for us. Suspended on two chains, swaying gently to and fro, we find it very relaxing, especially now with COVID.
Suddenly, quite near, we heard that double squawk. Listening for more, still swinging, I noticed a fainter squawk coming from the swing itself. So our ring-neck, concealed in the nearby hedge, was challenging a supposed rival.
Now, a year later, I’m wondering if that’s what he’s still doing? That it’s not just his neighbourly way of saying “Hi there” over the back fence as it were? When what he’s actually saying is: “Hey you; get off my property!”
A supposition recently highlighted by what a Beaver Brook friend told me: he too has a resident pheasant. “That so?” I said, debating whether to warn him. “Yes,” said he, “and it follows me around everywhere.”
Suddenly envious, I forgot to ask whether his pheasant was male or female. For if the latter, and he’d been feeding it, the bird could have imprinted on him as protector and caregiver. But if the latter, how come mine is so aloof, so unfriendly? Rather than ask, I’ve decided to leave it at that. After all, it’s a bit ridiculous for a grown man to envy someone their pet bird!
But I think I know why. You see, back in the mid-sixties when we moved here, my New Brunswick father-in-law, recently retired from the RCAF to his native Mundleville, was raising ring-necks to stock his dream hunting preserve. On one of our visits there, he gave us a hen pheasant. And during the three-hour-plus drive back to Old Barns she laid an egg in her cardboard box.
Rather than make a pet of her, I fashioned a nest in a nearby hedge, transplanted hen and egg to it, and wished them both well. And though I meant to check on her every day, what with commuting to a new full-time forestry job in Truro and helping to raise our three kids, I forgot. She may have raised a successful brood — or got eaten by a stray cat. Still, I like to think she made it. Which could make my two-note caller one of her distant offspring — and me its distant godfather!
All foolishness, of course. After all, the ring-neck, a jungle bird of southeast Asia, was introduced by hunters to New England and elsewhere in the 19th century. Soon they spread wherever there was suitable farmland habitat and not too much winter snow. So my squawky challenger could just be one of the countless descendants, no kin of mine.
Oh well, better a bird in the bush than no bird at all.
Gary Saunders is a retired forester, naturalist who writes to understand and share.