I have long held a theory, yet to be elevated into a thesis, that the IQs of different species of bird can be measured by the volume of roadkill relative to the local population of the species. By that measure, the dumbest bird is the pheasant, followed closely by the pigeon. The most intelligent is the magpie.
This theory is in danger of being disproved by Phil, who took up residence in our garden in France about a month ago. Phil the Pheasant is a highly intelligent bird (in fact he probably has an MPhil), capable of debating Cartesian philosophy for several seconds at a time.
He arrived here as a result of an event that has shaken the local wildlife population and which, to a large extent, has fed it. Across the valley from us is a huge enclosure, where pheasants are reared to meet the bloodlust of the shooting community. Some of them are apparently shipped to estates in Britain.
One night in early September, a couple of days before the start of the hunting season (which is, of course, a complete coincidence and has absolutely no bearing on the matter), the doors into the enclosure were mysteriously opened. Inside were 10,000 pheasants, and 8,000 of them escaped. For days, the fields and woods were filled with pheasants who had never tasted freedom, and the skies with buzzards who had never tasted pheasant.
If this escapade was engineered by animal rights activists (which it probably wasn’t, although no one is sure), it should make their sympathisers pause for thought. Apart from the havoc wrought by predators, our farmer-neighbour reports hundreds of dead pheasants in the woods, mainly hens, who had never needed to fend for themselves, didn’t know how to do it, and who had died for lack of water.
For the ones who survived this challenge – and they mostly appear to have been cocks: we have hardly seen a hen pheasant for weeks – the next, and continuing, challenge has been how to survive the hunters.
The French predilection for shooting anything that moves is well-known. Birds that offer less than a single mouthful of meat are cheerfully despatched. Phil would be a feast. In a field at the end of our road is a mobile home, which is the weekend retreat of a bank clerk in Graulhet who likes the escapism of la vie sauvage. (This is pardonable: anyone who lives in Graulhet needs to escape.) A large wood-carving of a stag adorns his gateway, despite the fact that there are no stags round here. Each Saturday and Sunday, he and his mates are out in the fields, guns cocked, accompanied by silly dogs with ribbons and cowbells round their necks. Local roads feature signs warning of la chasse, implying that if we are unwise enough to return to our own house, it will be our fault if we are murdered on the way.
The one consolation in this is that we have seen little evidence that the hunters ever succeed in shooting much. (We could prove or disprove this theory if we attended the annual dinner of the local hunters, to which we are cordially invited each year, and which we are obliged to refuse owing to a subsequent engagement.) When the hunters stalk the fields, they do not appear to bear the fruits of their labours. No corpses are piled by the roadside. It may be that, in normal times, there is precious little to shoot in the area. But, with 8,000 pheasants on the loose, these have not been normal times. There has been a lot of bang-banging.
These are some of the ordeals that Phil has had to face, and from which he has emerged triumphant (so far). He has worked out that someone’s garden is a safer place to be than the open countryside, especially when there is a spinney nearby for emergency cover. He has worked out that the garden of an English couple is better still, because they are less likely to eye you for the pot, and are even idiotic enough to lay out corn for you to eat each day.
So Phil is becoming a fixture. He is not here all the time. A pheasant needs to have some self-respect. But he will usually drop by at breakfast, in fact for breakfast, and in mid-afternoon, and at other times as well. How do we know it’s always Phil, you may ask? Doesn’t one pheasant look much like another? Not if he’s family, is the answer, and we are now family.
Two of his fellow escapees have turned up as well, Frédéric and Flaubert. Phil tolerated their presence for a while, then made it clear that this was his territory. He is on nodding terms with the chickens that come from next door, but they are hardly his intellectual equals. The chickens eat the seeds of next year’s wildflower meadow, and we are hoping to train Phil to squawk and flap his wings at them, to discourage their depredations.
This is a quintessentially French story of Liberté, Egalité (if only in death) and a small dose of Fraternité. We still don’t know the initial cause of the Libération. It might be animal rights. Or it might have something to do with the owner of the pheasant farm being a senior police officer in Castres, and so not lacking for ill-wishers.
We have tried to sell the film rights to Phil’s story, but are told that Chicken Run has already been made and that the world is not ready for Pheasant Run. We will go back to England next week, a tear in our eyes, and hope against hope that Phil the Pheasant will be here to greet us on our return.