Pick up your Pheasants at the Door.
I didn’t expect to be visiting the largest inflatable pheasant in the world last Thursday. It just happened to be looking down at passers as I visited Mitchell for my son’s last football game of the season.
More than one parent complained that the Thursday game couldn’t have been more conveniently scheduled next to the pheasant season opener. A Friday night game would have required only one overnight stay and allowed a road-hunting family the chance to leisurely drive the backroads towards home and share in our state’s favorite pastime.
Normally on the day prior to the nation’s biggest pheasant festival, retailers would have been packed and checkout lines long, as out-of-state hunters jostled for position to purchase licenses and shells. I stopped at one of the most popular destinations to kill a bit of time before kickoff and discovered an army of employees outnumbering hunters by three to one.
Later that night parents compared notes on routes they had taken to the football game and places that might have held birds, but for the first time in recent memory, none of us had seen a rooster on our entire trip out.
The soybean harvest is on and clouds of combine dust seem larger during a dry year than the ones you recall from your youth. The size of the machinery certainly has increased. I was passed at a stop light by a three-story tractor with tracks instead of tires. Four or five of them working in tandem creates a dust cloud that slowed the highway traffic and nearly blocked out the sun.
It isn’t just the drought that has slowed the recovery of bird numbers. The latest farming practices that suppress insect numbers, eliminate weeds, and encourage the removal of tree rows and abandoned farmsteads has decreased the availability of nesting cover and the insect protein that newly hatched chicks require.
A cross-country road trip used to require the filling of windshield wiper fluid on a regular basis. Children today wouldn’t even recognize the insect-covered windows that armies of aerial bugs created. It is hard to miss something so disgusting, but those windshield nightmares were a sign of a healthier environment that supported a diversity of bird and animal life that has fewer places to hide in many modern agrobusinesses.
For a moment as I drove to the football game, I was reminded of those times as a flotilla of winged insects exploded upon my view. I thought that perhaps things hadn’t changed that much, that maybe I just needed to get off the highway to find insect vitality. But reality proved that I was just following behind a semi shipping bees from one end of the country to the other.
No science fiction authors of my youth could have made me believe that I would someday live in a world so sterile that humans would pay thousands of dollars to rent another’s herd of bugs.
The big box outdoor retailer backed up the inflatable pheasant with pens of live birds both inside their store and out. Small children pushed their faces up to the wire mesh to get a closer look at the gaudy bands of roosters that had been especially bred to later be released for the guns of hunters.
In a year lacking moisture, habitat, and wild-born birds, those raised in pens will make up a larger proportion of the harvest. More bird dogs will be bringing back roosters that never needed to be shot, lacking the natural instincts that cause them to rise in flight from danger or run through the corn rows. The dogs will simply pick them up and carry them back without the sound of gun fire or the skill needed to make the shot.
How long before the hunters purchase the birds too, cutting out the farmer middlemen and release them themselves just ahead of their ditch hunting grandchildren.
“Attention shoppers. Shells can be found in aisle nine. Florescent vests are next to the fudge factory, and you can pick up your crate of our newly patented “Neon Pheasants” at the door next to the frozen venison. They’re easier to see in low light conditions.”