Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pheasants, mallards & suburbs gone wild

I went for a run this morning to try to shake off some of my winter fat, and ended up rediscovering the best thing about running outdoors: the ability to observe your environment in ways you can't when you're zipping by at 35, 50 or 70 mph.

Our community is the most rural of the Sacramento suburbs, an odd mishmash of post-WWII housing and the occasional small farm lots, so there's always plenty to look at. As I settled into my sluggish, out-of-practice pace, the first thing that struck me was the field behind my house.

Or rather, what used to be a field.

When we moved in in 2004, we knew the vacant four-acre lot wouldn't last. Oak trees, the remnants of an old almond orchard and native grasses were nice and everything, but we knew some fat McMansions would make the owner a lot more money.

Nonetheless, we took delight in all the wildlife that field attracted, and we did our part to contribute to the habitat, allowing the back third of our plot to grow wild with native grasses, supporting lots of little rodents that hawks and neighborhood cats alike appreciate.

It wasn't long before we started hearing a rooster pheasant in that field. We'd be eating our breakfast or getting ready for work, and there it was. "Did you hear that? Did you hear that?"

And when we paid attention, we could hear - and sometimes see - pheasants in other undeveloped lots in our neighborhood too.

One day, we looked out in our yard and saw that Mr. Rooster Pheasant had ventured through a hole in our fence into our microhabitat. We were enchanted - even when he made a cautious raid into Boyfriend's garden.

Then last summer, it was as if someone fired a starting gun for all the developers. They broke ground on our vacant field. Then another one down the street. Then another one half a mile away. Then on the last one around. Pheasant habitat gone.

I'm not one of those suburban whiners who wants to move in to enjoy a neighborhood, then scream when someone builds more houses so even more people can move in. Besides, what they're doing here - infill development - is far more responsible than gobbling up ag land and habitat out in the ever-expanding exurbs.

But what kills me about these developments is that most of them have come to a screeching halt for a variety of reasons, starting with the housing bust. We could've had one more spring with that rooster, but we've been left instead with nothing but memories and tiny bulldozed lots.

Pheasants used to be abundant in this state, but their habitat is evaporating. Now if you want to hunt pheasants, you're usually reduced to shooting pen-raised birds released into fallow farm fields the morning of the hunt.

Life goes on, I thought, continuing my run. I was starting to feel good - not as rusty as I expected. I passed a small family farm on the right - maybe 20 acres, with a weathered plywood shack for selling direct to the public in the summer. I wondered: How long would it be until this landowner succumbed to the lure of the subdivision? And when I looked to my left, there he was.

Not a pheasant. They're really gone now. But a drake mallard, walking up onto someone's lawn from a tiny drainage ditch.

I tell you, it doesn't matter how many times I see ducks in urban or suburban environments - I always gawk. I work so hard to get them within 35 yards of me when I'm shivering in a marsh in the winter, and then, come spring, the little buggers walk around me like it's no big deal.

I looked down to the ditch to examine the habitat that helped support this guy, and standing there in about one square foot of puddled water was his hen.

Oh, how I wanted to stop! I was in a groove, though, so I kept going, happy to think about how durable our mallards are, thriving in our increasingly developed region, taking advantage whatever bodies of water they can find.

As I rounded one of the final corners of my run, there was a burst of cacophony overhead: a flock of seagulls that winter here, a good 90 miles east - and 240 feet above - the Pacific Ocean. They must be getting ready to head back out to sea soon. When we see them again, we'll know it's almost duck season.

Back at the house, I dutifully stretched, glancing from time to time out our back window to see if perhaps we had a little visitor in the burgeoning spring grass. We didn't.

Perhaps we need a pond.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Nice piece! I miss our pheasant, too. Wonder where he went?

NorCal Cazadora said...

Hopefully someplace where there are lots of hot pheasant babes so they can make more pheasants.

Blessed said...

I'm always enchanted when I see wildlife that is still surviving out here in the suburbs. There is a red fox family and a nice collection of rabbits in my neighborhood.

We gave up upland bird hunting because the populations were getting so decimated a few years ago - then we discovered waterfowling and that made up for the loss mostly. The last couple of years we've seen some quail again so there is hope! I hope your pheasant rooster did find him some pheasant babes so that they can have some babies! What the USA needs is a few more pheasant!

Albert A Rasch said...


I eagerly await the seasonal fauna that travels through my neck of the woods. Indigo swifts in the fall, goldfinches in the winter, and the robins in spring. Then there are the locals that occasionally stop by, like the sandhill cranes, and the greater herons. It's always a pleasure to see them and all the other animals.

Albert A Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles

HELLEK said...

You need a pond. Just a little one. Even a couple square feet with mosquito fish...

you need a pond.