Golden Pheasant

“Holy shit, did I just buy myself a bird?”

I was too flabbergasted to edit my potty mouth before I’d shouted across the makeshift auditorium. I had just raised my hand, almost without thinking – it was more like a reaction, fired by the urgency of the moment and the pleading of my young son. We’d seen all the birds that were up for sale that night, and hadn’t seen anything much out of the ordinary. Elihu had been moping all night that he ‘wished we could have something more exotic’ than just chickens and guinea fowl. I’d been willing to go there, but aside from a cage of bedraggled-looking fantail pigeons, there just wasn’t anything else worth considering. But then out of nowhere, a rich, golden yellow emerged on the stage, and we both stared in disbelief. “Ten, now ten now ten now ten now ten” Oh-oh. A pheasant – crap, a friggin golden pheasant – like the kind we’d seen at the state fairs! Elihu can’t see things so well at a distance, and he doesn’t have the benefit of color to help him assess the scene; he thought he was seeing an alligator – at least he could tell it was something that had a very long tail. “Honey, that’s a golden pheasant. Go up and look”. He ran up to the stage to see for himself.

I began to do a lightening-quick assessment. Owning one wasn’t unheard of. We had a separate pen. We could. I guess. Yes, I guess we could. Geez, really? Elihu ran back and begged me to bid. “Twenty now twenty now twenty now twenty” the caller went on. ‘I can justify that’, I thought. ‘Twenty dollars, ok. We don’t eat out, I color my own hair…’ I raised my number. But then the price started going up fast. In seconds it was up to thirty dollars. I wasn’t so sure. I hesitated, card in my lap. Elihu was sitting beside me, dancing in his seat and getting frantic. He cried “Mommy, you gotta raise your hand high – like this” and he had raised his own small arm in the air, which in turn caught the attention of the dingy-looking men who stood in front of the auctioneer’s platform, scouring the crowd for bids. The auctioneer Moake himself, his hands-free headset digging into the soft, white flesh of his bald head pointed to me with a question on his face. Was I in? In that moment I grew even fonder of this place; if indeed I chose to pass on the creature up for bidding, I could, even if I had been the highest bidder. If I got cold feet, thankfully, here in this rural auction house I could simply shake my head ‘no’ and the next lowest bidder would walk with the prize. But when he pointed to me and ceased his auctioneer’s call, I nodded yes and held up the piece of yellow cardboard with my number on it. Moake recapped the sale across the p.a. system, “Item number 657 to 2764 for $32.50.” And that was that.

It’s been a while since Elihu and I have been to the Town and Country Auctions, in fact we hadn’t been yet this year, as I didn’t have a number on file in the system for 2011. (Once again, I have a current number on file. The folded piece of cardboard in my glovebox gives me the feeling that I’m not a poser and that I actually do belong here, buying livestock.) I can’t quite remember how I first learned of the place – maybe a bus driver at Elihu’s school, maybe someone at Tractor Supply offering an alternative source for live poultry. Anyway, discovering this micro-culture of domestic animal sales has propelled my son and me into our relatively new world of bird ownership.

Somehow, owning an animal, exotic or not-so exotic, just seems so much more doable when you’re at Moake’s auction house. Dozens of animals, from iguanas to miniature horses are lined up, side-by-side in cages, all of them there for the potential buyers to look over, to begin dreaming what it might be like to have such an animal in one’s own family… I’m never sure if folks there know what they’re doing, or if they’re on the quest for just the right critter to round out their menagerie. Will they be good, caring and responsible pet owners? Who the hell can tell? While it’s not always easy to spot folks’ motives, it does seem everyone there shares a certain outlook on life; all is possible, it’s not a big deal, and why not? I’ve seen folks carry off goats, shoving them into the holds of their CRVs… And I can’t help but wonder, do they really know what they’re getting into? Or does it matter? The beauty of this sort of animal purchase is that if you find it just ain’t working out, you can simply bring the creature back next Saturday and put it up for auction again.

And so, in this spirit of ‘Why not, what’s the worst that can happen?’, Elihu and I have embarked on a few bird-owning adventures. We learned about homing pigeons through our purchase of a robust flock, including personal favorites Lily and King Louis, members of our household for over a year, until a raccoon dined on Lily. Shortly after that, one fine October day as I called Louis to join us overhead for a brisk walk in the field, he was intercepted by a hawk and carried off through the forest to his death. Oh well. It was a good run, and we learned a lot. Enough to embolden us to then buy Magpie pigeons, and have Elihu join the National Pigeon Association and become the nation’s youngest member.

And the chickens. We learned about breeds. About Banties – short for Bantams – which are just genetically engineered, smaller versions of the standard size breeds. We’ve had the chance to see all manner of farmyard fowl up close; geese, turkeys, peafowl, guinea fowl, quail, ducks, chickens of all shapes and sizes. It’s a great place to learn, that’s for sure. And it gives the commoner an opportunity to dabble. That’s how we started, as tentative dabblers, gleaning whatever bits of knowledge we could from the folks who seemed to know what they were doing. The folks who could grab a 35-pound turkey and fight back the thundering wings to manhandle it into submission, and into a box. Those are the folks we ask questions of. The wisdom we’ve acquired! It’s always an adventure.

And so the adventure continues in the form of Timothy, our new Red Golden Pheasant. I’m glad to have had a teensy bit of experience with these birds. (Last summer we visited the NY State Pheasant re-population program in Ithaca, a stunningly huge operation where thousands of pheasants live under 6 acres of netting. We were allowed to roam through these vast, tented flocks – and I still have a scar from a scratch given to me by a powerful male.), Thanks to our visit with those animals, I wasn’t altogether surprised when I had my first taste of this guy’s power. They are muscley birds. They pack a punch. They’re fast, flighty and strong. Birds on the whole are stronger than you’d think – something you learn straight away when you have occasion to hold them as they struggle. Since his explosion from crate to pen we haven’t had occasion to touch Timothy again. And we will not touch him unless we have to. Now, the task ahead is to gain his trust. I have my doubts about this actually coming to fruition, as all game birds just seem so much flightier; they’re wilder than their barnyard cousins. However, our requisite Google mini-course has assured us that this breed ‘tames easily’ and can be gentle and docile. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Elihu has before him a personal quest, a mission that will test his self-discipline. He cannot rush in with this new bird if he is to reach a point one day where he can actually hold this bird on his arm, or pat its gorgeous feathers. He kinda blew it with a parrot we once had, moving too fast, too soon, eliciting bites and other bad behavior from the now-nervous bird. He wasn’t able to give our keets – baby guinea fowl – the slow, steady trust-building time needed to approach them without them fleeing. On the story goes. So now he is eight, and he is getting things, you know? He is beside himself with the new member of our family, and I pray this time the magic holds and that he can find it motivation enough to move gentle and slow. Just this morning – a school day – he was up extra early, dressed and on his way outside to the pen to spend some quiet time with Timothy. (Btw – one of the first names on the list was Buckingham, something his regal plumage supports quite well. I’m still not quite on board with Timothy. But Elihu feels it’s a gentle name, and he is a bird of gentle heart. We shall see…) To his credit, Elihu has already logged several hours in the pen with this fabulous bird in which he’s done nothing but sit and convey his feelings to the bird in song, low, soothing tones of conversation and hopeful transmissions of gentle and meditative thought. A good start.

A quick call to my mother from the auction brought me to my senses; we’d originally come for more laying hens, as our layers have been plucked off one by one over the past few months by the local wildlife, leaving Eggs of Hope unable to deliver on standing orders (let alone supply Elihu his daily ration). I saw a nice trio of laying hens – hardy and handsome Rhode Island reds – and easily bought them for another ten bucks. Money well spent. We put them in the coop when we returned home around midnight on Saturday, leaving our better inspection of them for the daylight hours. Daylight and a closer look at them showed one of our ‘layers’ to be an adolescent male. Argh. And he’s handsome, too. Oh man, I don’t need another over-sexed rooster! I need eggs! Crap. Now Elihu has named him (Einstein…?!) and soon he’ll be a member of our family too and we won’t be able to part with him. We’d have him butchered, but at $4 for the service and a 40-mile drive there and back it just doesn’t make sense. And we’d leave him out overnight for the fox that lives here, but something just won’t let us.

There is the option of selling him back again. That, and another option that serendipitously dropped in our path: it just so happens that there are only two big bird swaps in this area a year – one in March and one in October – and the next one is next Sunday! We’re advised to get there early – by 8 – if we’re to find a lady for our Red Golden Pheasant. And don’t overpay – like we did at the auction – we should only pay about $10 a head for a hen and not much more. And maybe get him two gals – that’s about right for his breed. How lucky are we? So next Sunday, I think Einstein might be coming with us to the big bird tailgate party and finding himself a new home, and hopefully we’ll be bringing home some hens for Timothy.

On it goes. New birds, new situations, new challenges. Soon comes winter, and by then I must have my new coop insulated, and must outfit Timothy’s pen with a heat lamp. Deep down I’m kinda excited, even mildly thrilled, for who knew that Elihu and I would be the owners of an exotic game bird? I consider briefly the life we might be living had we stayed in Illinois. No matter where we lived, above our Cafe in Dekalb, in an apartment in Rogers Park or Evanston, we could never, ever have had the wonderful experiences that we’ve had here if we’d lived in those places. And in those moments when I wonder at what we left behind, and what might have been (and in the moments when I miss the lake so) I just remind myself how lucky we are to have had all of these wonderful, unpredictable experiences.

I am grateful to the newest member of our family, Timothy, our beautiful Red Golden Pheasant, for ushering in a new chapter of the ongoing adventure….

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