It’s clear that the cock pheasant on the opposite side of the road has just been hit by a car. Clipped but not yet run over. We are slowing down to turn left. As I drive past, I see it move, out of the corner of my eye – an uncomfortable move of the neck. Birds are, of course, fragile. It’s not going to be jumping up and immediately walking off after a hit by a car. Is it still alive though? Or was that movement a death spasm?
I brake a bit harder and pull into the bus stop on the opposite side of the road, as there’s nobody behind me. This is a FAST main road. The bus stop is one of those gravel ones carved out of the embankment. It’s there to protect the bus from the sheer speed of the traffic as it makes its pick-up for the good people of Sussex while the cars yowl past it on the right. Better than creating a long angry hardbrake queue, but in rush hour the drivers must have to bully to get back into the screwyou morning traffic.
No bus right now though. I stop, get out of my car, and open the boot (ahem trunk). On the far side of the road, cars are firing past this big prone bird constantly, narrowly avoiding it where it fell – which is right in the tyre line. It’s only a matter of time before one driver doesn’t do that tiny swerve and then bdunk bdunk – End of pheasant both aesthetically and practically.
Boot (trunk?) swiftly open I dump out the contents of my bag. I grab the swimming trunks (pants?) I didn’t even know I’d packed.
Thought is quick and time is slow. The cars are still haring down the road. Is the bird still moving? I’m not sure. I’m going to it.
What’s my motivation here? Seriously? Good or ill?
If you don’t hit it yourself, you can take home roadkill. Nice fresh pheasant. There’s a lot of that at the forefront of my mind. Is that it? Do I want this bird to be dead so I can hang it up somewhere for a few days and then pluck and roast it, send the feathers to a friend, stock the bones, eat well for a week despite cashflow problems? Or am I trying to save it? Whatever my kindness is doing, my carnivore is noisier right now.
So I walk across the road, and the traffic – so fast – sees me. A car slows enough for me to risk going for it and I rush across to the twitching bird. It looks at me. Our eyes meet. A universe in a moment. I’ve never seen a bird so eloquent. “Help me!” The cars are waiting now, three of them already – not honking though. Aware. Curious perhaps, as this man moves a bird too stunned to move itself.
I’ve helped pigeons out of buildings. I’ve handled a few chickens. I can pick up a bird. Like picking up a crab, there’s a way of doing it. I didn’t know I knew, but I did.
My instincts have pulled me to grabbing a pair of swimming trunks (shorts?). The trunks provide a cushion for my grip and help calm the wings. I reach down whispering those soft and senseless words you whisper to the broken. “Sshh it’s ok, I’ve got you. I’m gonna pick you up. It’s ok. Ssh now.” He remains completely docile, one eye turned up to me. I gently take him up. He lets me lift him with no struggle. Anything is better than the road and these speeding cars inches from his dazed head.
I can feel his fragility in my hands. His hollow bones some of which might be broken. His big breathing. His heartbeat?
“Hey little buddy,” says my mouth. “hE muSt bE dYiNg!” says my carnivore mind. “You took quite a hit there,” says my mouth. “ThEre’s a rOCk thEre, yOu caN KiLL iT!” says my carnivore.
With him cradled gently in these possible hands I find a shady patch of soft grass.
We are a distance from the road. A rabbit startles. “Good,” I think. “A prey animal and it let me get close. It’s unlikely there’s a local fox or it’d be more alert.”
I settle him gently on the grass, my pheasant friend who I might have killed. He twitches a leg. His leg is hurt. One of his stupid big colourful dappled legs is badly hurt. Perhaps the wing on that side too. “Help me!” the one eye on my side begs again. This shit is out of his comprehension. I’m going to do my best.
He’s in shock, this pheasant. What do you do for somebody in shock? Water. He’ll be hyperventilating. It’s hot. He can’t go looking for water in this state.
I go back to the car. Louise is in there. Earlier today we went to the spring at Fulking. We filled a thermos with lovely ancient “not for human consumption” spring water. She gives me the thermos and I fill the cup-lid with spring water. Pheasants can consume this, even if the local council is justifiably terrified about pesticide runoff.
I once again cross this maniac road, and return to my charge, clutching precious water. I leave Lou’s cup in easy reach of his head. “Water,” I say encouragingly, knowing he doesn’t speak English but trying to intuit the pheasant for “I mean you no harm”. He blinks. He’s not taking his eyes off me. “I’ll leave you alone and come back in a bit to check on you, ok? You should be safe here.” It strangely feels like he is taking it all in. He’s having to make sense of human communication for a moment.
I walk back to the car deeply conflicted. I got myself into this situation on an impulse borne almost completely from opportunism and base carnivorous greed. I went mostly to pick up a fresh roadkill. Now I’m the fecking pheasant doctor. “IT is GoNNa DiE frOm sHocK,” says my carnivore, while the rest of me is literally surprised by being close to tears at the eloquence of this being that is in need of help. Lou puts a hand on my arm. It’s welcome.
I cradled his weight. He trusted me completely. He is a wild bird and he was calmer in my hands than a chicken that gets lifted daily. With the cars and the road he must have (at split second) understood that trusting me was his best option, so he suppressed his “DON’T PICK ME UP” instinct. I find myself hoping he’ll be ok now.
We drive on up Chanctonbury. Up the hill we go and we are there for many hours. In the course of which time the carnivore part of me phones a friend to ask if he knows how to butcher a pheasant – just in case, I tell myself. “JUst iN caSe It’s dEaD whEn We retUrn fOr thE flaSK cUp”? Ugly call. My morals are all over the place in this.
Up to the top of the hill we go. We make friends with the beautiful cattle who roam more freely and happily than any cattle I’ve ever seen. They’re happy up at Chanctonbury. Before likely being sold for incredible premiums to the top top restaurants who will buffalo every inch of their usable bodies. But at least they are truly roaming, not in boxes or in burnt out rainforest or metal warrens tormented by thoughtless pricks.
One of the cows becomes gruntily curious. We commune for a moment. The finger is not touching the horn. He’s much bigger than me. But I like the perspective trick. EDIT : (I was playing the old game of pretending indifference to her while leaving a bit of me behind for inspection. Animals are suckers for that game, from cats to cows.)
Then. Then it’s back down the hill. Back to the bus stop. Back for the pleasant pheasant. Hazards on, boot open. Louise ain’t budging. It’s likely dead.
Grim, I return to the patch of soft wet grass, mostly expecting to find a dead bird. I find where it was. There’s no pheasant, but the upright cup is completely empty of water.
There’s a trail of small feathers in the grass. Doctorbutcher becomes doctorbutchertracker.
This poor pheasant is easy to track. He’s blundering and he’s hurt. I go through nettles in my shorts, meet a bramble or two and hear a rustle.
There, in a protected bush, I see my new friend. He’s hopping, but strangely, just for a moment, he’s hopping towards me. But keeping distance.
I speak words he won’t know. “That’s a good safe place. Stay there. I’ll get you more water. You stay there.” He does. I go.
I go back to the car and we improvise a vessel out of a Coconut water tetrapak. I fill it to the brim with spring water and I bring it to where he can find it. I’ll certainly stop and get this litter next time I inevitably go up to the Chanctonbury Ring, before you derail this. This experience is torched into my memory.
He seems energetic already, my new pheasant friend. And capable. He’s back on his good foot. He has had a hell of a shock though so I’m not going to encourage anything but rest. I don’t want him leaving this safe thornbush he’s found on the edge of the woods until he’s slept the shock and adrenaline off.
He’s not doing the thing you might have seen where the bird with a broken wing keeps trying to fly. He is very much working out his new parameters and how to thrive within them. This pheasant is tough. I reckon he might hole out successfully in that bush for a while, even if there are owls. His wing might not even be broken. And he can hop for England. He might be in pain and shock with a fucked leg. But yep he can still move.
(Maybe one day he’ll be the wise old lame pheasant, disseminating random yet seductive names and theories to make sense of a personal experience completely beyond his ken. Loads of the other pheasants will start making the same noises. He’ll be propagating half understood experiences as fact: “The Waterbringers, they make a noise like “shhh” and they call us “buddy” when they lift us.. They are completely outside our understanding as pheasants but even if they could eat us they choose to save us from the evil Cars who truly hate us!”
I leave him his new big water pot and I return to the car. Before I go I tell him goodbye and I wish him good luck. I hope he grows into that wise old pheasant. I hope the wise old pheasant doesn’t overlook that it was a mixture of his own personal strength and trust that got him back on his feet. If he’d fought me in the road there would have been a time when it stopped being worth my efforts. He definitely wouldn’t have got water. He made his rescue as much as I did.
Part of my recent journey towards myself has been a huge recalibration of my relationship with meat. I know that if that pheasant had been profoundly dead when I took him off the road, he would have ended up in my bag and eventually in my oven. (Sorry).
But through my perhaps badly motivated “help”, he will actually continue to live. And had he been dead when I returned after making friends with the cow, I can’t be certain if I’d have picked him up to eat or just performed a ceremony and then taken him up and buried him in the little Chanctonbury pet cemetery next to Red Rackham.
It seems that sometimes even things bad begun can find their way to good ending. Everything is a balance. The scales tipped in the right direction this time and the pheasant recovered brilliantly. I helped make that possible despite part of my initial intention. Once again I’m finding myself looking at my relationship with meat. I wonder how many of you would have snapped its neck and said “it was dead when I got there.” I’m surprised how close I came.