It’s 9 a.m. and time to go pheasant huntin’ in downtown Detroit! I’m gonna spot one of them suckers if it’s the last thing I do.
It seems every resident of inner Detroit has experienced repeated pheasant sightings, except moi, bird-lover extraordinaire.
In the tall grasses and shrubs, weeds and wildflowers that cover Detroit’s abundant vacant land, and without hunters to plague them, the game birds are thriving, I hear from countless friends and acquaintances. They’re everywhere. But blasted if I’ve seen a single one. And I’m tired of it. I’m gonna find me a pheasant. Today.
I start in southwest Detroit, where greenery flourishes. Standing next to a crab apple tree, with crickets chirping loudly, Joe Tolentino is helping a crew repave West Grand Boulevard.
“I always see them,” says Tolentino, a Hamtramck resident. “You see them in places you wouldn’t believe. Places where you’d think people would just go out and try to poach them. Just drive around and anywhere there’s a field, you’ll see them.”
“Joe, have you eaten them?” asks Joyce, a Detroiter working on the crew. “What do they taste like, chicken or something?”
“Ohh, nooooo,” says Tolentino, who hunted the birds in his youth. “It’s its own taste. It’s wild. It’s like when you eat deer, you know it’s not cow.”
I search the area with no luck.
I head to the Cass Corridor and pick up my buddy Michael Jackman. He’s seen the galliformes around Fourth Street and agrees to assist my hunt. Sculptor Bob Sestok points to a field yonder where he says pheasant chicks were rambling just yesterday.
We search. Nothing. Wandering from overgrown lot to overgrown lot, I get the feeling I’m in Tennessee.
A little boy hanging from playground equipment informs me that he’s not seen pheasants, but he’s got five “groundhogs” in his back yard. Thanks, kid, but nowhere close.
A nice lady points us to a spot where she scares up the birds whenever she walks her dog. I run around the fields and bark like a dog. Squat.
We wander behind a house where two men lounge on the back porch.
“See pheasants around here?” I ask.
“Ohhh, yeah,” coos Bailey, an older man wearing overalls and a train conductor’s hat. “There’s a big, bad red cock who comes around here, there’s four of them; it’s a family. He’s so smooth, you should see how he walks, from here to the freeway. He won’t fly. He just walks along.”
Bailey illustrates with his arms and neck how the popinjay struts proudly, with his arms flapping back and forth, neck bobbing up and down. “He looks kind of like a turkey,” Bailey comments.
Joe, his friend, is holding binoculars. He uses them to watch the pheasants and a black squirrel that tightropes electrical wires.
“They won’t eat out of the garbage,” says Joe of the pheasants. “Otis upstairs, he throws out bread for them.”
“They gotta have food,” says Bailey.
Has anyone ever tried to kill one, to eat it? I ask.
“Kill a bird? You can’t kill a bird, no, no, no,” says Bailey incredulously. “Why, why would you want to kill a bird?”
“My Lord, no, don’t shoot them,” says Joe.
Apparently, Bailey and Joe think I intend to kill the birds. I can barely get in a word of defense.
“If you shoot any of them, don’t you come back around here,” says Bailey.
“Don’t you know, it’s against the law to fire a gun in the city of Detroit?” says Joe. “You’ll go to jail.”
Finally, I make them understand that the only shooting I’ll do is with my camera. They invite me back “anytime.”
I phone the police to ask about poaching. Officer Woods, a police spokesman, says he’s never heard of a pheasant killing in the city.
Tim Payne, wildlife specialist with the Department of Natural Resources, says he’s heard of poaching incidents, though nobody tracks the bird population in Detroit.
Payne says that pheasants are indigenous to China, but were brought to the United States in the 1850s. Their numbers in Michigan dwindled drastically in the 1960s and 1970s, likely due to such agricultural practices as the use of toxic pesticides.
Because they are so popular with hunters, the DNR cut a deal with China to bring thousands of pheasants to southeast Michigan over a six-year period in the 1980s, Payne says. He not sure how much the state paid for the reintroduction, but he’s sure it was a lot.
So informed, I head to Fourth Street, where Jackman has spotted pheasants before.
Lo and behold! There’s a big fat hen, staring at us! I can’t believe it. I take pictures of the bird, and throw the remainder of my lunch in its direction.
The friendly postman gives me bad news. The bird is not a pheasant. “What?” I say, “This is ludicrous!”
Dee Kethman, resident down the street, confirms. Somebody dropped off the South American guinea hens months ago. The neighbors feed the funny, pretty birds cracked corn and sunflower seeds.
Foiled again, I head to the east side, where folks report pheasants are becoming more common than abandoned houses.
Nellie, an older woman with gray hair and soft, big eyes, is on her porch, surveying the landscape. Her home of 50 years, one of four left on the street, looks onto a distinctly bucolic landscape, with trees, corn stalks, wildflower bushes and thick grass. Nellie says she sees hundreds of pheasants traversing the fields west of Indian Village, near Lafayette Street, every day. Police stop to gape once in a while.
“It’s good, because they can’t shoot them here. In Detroit, you can’t shoot a gun. I’m glad. Because if they were out in the rural areas, the police would probably be killing them,” Nellie says.
As I drive home past rambunctious kids leaving school, my aggravation at not finding a pheasant subsides. I ask a kid, “Know where there’s pheasants around here?”
“Yeah, just go down this street. You can’t miss them, can’t miss them.”
It’s the tenth time I’ve heard this today, and I’m done with it. I try one last time, rustling through the grass, barking. My spaniel impersonation is an utter failure. And I wonder, this quest for pheasants, will it ever end?
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