There's beauty in a pheasant's blurry takeoff

It's hard to capture and appreciate in a picture

This painting of pheasants by the late Iowa wildlife artist James Landenberger, while a pleasure to behold, does not capture the blurred motion seen by the human eye when a rooster pheasant rockets from cover. The sights and sounds of the flush contribute to the pheasant’s status as America’s foremost upland game bird. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
This painting of pheasants by the late Iowa wildlife artist James Landenberger, while a pleasure to behold, does not capture the blurred motion seen by the human eye when a rooster pheasant rockets from cover. The sights and sounds of the flush contribute to the pheasant’s status as America’s foremost upland game bird. (Orlan Love/correspondent)

During pheasant season I like to look at a wildlife print hanging on the wall in my living room.

The painting — by the late, esteemed Iowa wildlife artist James Landenberger — depicts a hen and a rooster pheasant somewhat larger than life. The drab hen is earthbound while the gaudy rooster, just taking flight, is frozen in time with every feather and feature neatly in place.

As much as I like Landenberger’s portrait, it, like most paintings of flushing roosters, fails to capture the pixilated dynamism of a bird rocketing from 0 to 30 mph in the time it takes your adrenaline-fueled heart to beat twice.

That pulse-quickening, nerve-tingling flush, coupled with its handsome plumage, delicious flesh and ability to outrun, outfly and outwit human predators, makes the ring-necked pheasant, at least in my opinion, America’s foremost upland game bird.

You would think if anyone could capture the distorted features of the rapidly accelerating rooster, it would be cubist painter Pablo Picasso, who was famed for breaking down images and reassembling them from multiple viewpoints. But Picasso, like many other masters, preferred to paint still lives of dead pheasants.

Sometimes before a hunting trip I practice mounting my shotgun to my shoulder with my eyes focused sharply on Landenberger’s rooster.

Doing so, I think, helps make that critical aspect of wing shooting, swiftly and smoothly shouldering the gun, become almost automatic — an advantage when the typical rooster flushing at your feet will be out of shotgun range in little more than three seconds.

It’s easy to get Landenberger’s static bird in sharp focus but much less so with real live roosters whose thick powerful wings beat a blurry nine times per second during the launch.

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Getting the rooster in sharp focus is especially difficult when the bird flushes wild with no warning from the dogs. Surprise flushes often catch the hunter with an awkwardly carried shotgun, unprepared to shoot, and they can trigger an adrenaline rush that makes it harder to remain calm.

Even when the dogs have pointed out the bird’s location, removing the element of surprise, you have but three seconds to click off the shotgun’s safety, mount the shotgun to your shoulder, establish the bird’s sex, assure a safe shooting lane, see the bird clearly and squeeze the trigger.

In my experience, which includes observations of thousands of rooster flushes, it takes at least a second, during which the bird travels 15 meters, for the hurtling russet plumes and the impressionist blur of beak, claws and eyes to coalesce into a white-neck-ringed pheasant.

And if you let them get inside your head — which I still do after 55 years of hunting them — they can demoralize you with their raucous cackles and their thunderous wing beats.

I am only a little embarrassed to admit that on several such occasions I have flat-missed close-flushing roosters and have even gotten so flustered that I failed to get off a shot.

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Editor's note: Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography. He helps instruct introductory and advanced courses in environmental science and geosci ...

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