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Did You Ever Hear a Pheasant Laugh

I could see “old crooked neck” sneaking thru the grass off to my left.  He was out in front of the dogs, running in a crouch with his head canted to one side, because he had a broken neck, which is why we called him “old crooked neck”.  Vashon hunters had been after this cock pheasant for years, but he was too wily to be shot.  It was the first and last time I was going to see “old crooked neck” alive.   

We had two Labradors and old Boots, our Springer spaniel with her nose to the ground, hot on the pheasant’s trail.  Pan and her son Mike, the Labs, were out in front of old Boots wind scenting the old bird, as they ranged back and forth across the field; unlike Boots who kept her nose to the ground, while she tracked the pheasant.  I had seen “old crooked neck” way out in front of the dogs and when he came to the end of the field, somewhere between Beal Road and the old Air Force mess hall that has since become the Eagles Club, he veered left and  disappeared in the grass, leaving the dogs to mill around, having lost the scent.

Then with a great “cackle,” that sounded like he was laughing, the pheasant leaped into the air a hundred 100 feet behind us, his having doubled back and left the dogs and me dumbfounded as to how “old crooked neck” had escaped once again.  

Dad was a pretty good shot, but some days, he just didn’t have it.  He called old Boots a “knot-head” because she wasn’t very good at answering his Acme Thunderer police whistle and Dad would get all red in the face and fuss and fume over her lack of attention, which at times seemed justified.  On this particular day, we were hunting in a field south of Beal’s greenhouses and Dad had missed what were good shots, three times in a row, thus aggravating old Boots to the point where she just took off by herself to do her own hunting.  Dad whistled and whistled until he was blue in the face and threatened to leave old Boots in the field when she came proudly through the grass carrying a wounded bird that she had run down herself.  The look on her face was one of triumph, giving her license to disobey Dad’s police whistle again.

Not all the pheasant we hunted were hard to shoot.  Take the state birds for instance.  Fish and Wildlife started planting Vashon with state raised pheasants that were un-afraid of humans and made little attempt to avoid hunters.  We called the planted birds “dumb,” because they stayed in little bunches and kept close to the road, making them easy to shoot and no sport for the hunter.  Though they may have added to the bird population of Vashon, local hunters avoided shooting them.

Training our dogs to hunt was a year round chore.  We used canvass dummies stuffed with rags and pheasant feathers to teach them to retrieve.  Mom used the brilliant blue chest feathers to make women’s hats and the tail feathers to add flare to her creations.

Mike, the Labrador was susceptible to being hard-mouthed, meaning that he would chomp down on the birds while retrieving them and ruin the meat.  The cure was to stick tacks through the inside of the canvass dummies which made it very painful to clamp down.   Every dummy had a rope loop sticking out of one or both ends so as to make throwing the dummy easier.  Another aspect of training was to drag the dummy through the grass to a hiding place on the far side of a field and to lead the dog to the start of the trail to train them in picking up a scent.

The dogs became very excited when they saw Dad with his shotgun and milled around the back end of our Super 88 Oldsmobile.  They all jumped in the trunk when he opened the lid excited to be on the go.  Dad would then stuff a rag or one of the dummies into one side of the lid, so the dogs would have plenty of air to breathe.

Boots was hot on the trail of “old crooked neck” the day of the pheasant’s demise and flushed him where Mom got a clear shot.   When Boots brought “old crooked neck” back to Mom, she was surprised to find that his neck had gone limp, so she took a bent coat hanger and shoved it down his throat to create the distinctive crook in his neck proving that it was “old crooked neck” and took him to the sportsman’s club where he had had a price on his head for four or five years.  Mom won the prize for shooting “old crooked neck” and took the bird home to become one of our favorite dishes, pheasant stuffed zucchini.  Scooping out the inside of the two foot long zucchini, Mom would mix wild and white rice because the wild rice was so expensive, with onions that had been fried up with the pulp of the zucchini and add red and green bell peppers for the color and “old crooked neck.”

Sean@vashonloop.com