A white-headed rooster pheasant!
That was the thought that flashed through my brain when the bird took wing ahead of the “point-track-and-creep, point-track-and-creep” stalking work of my French spaniel Abbey through thick native grasses and marsh grass groundcover of a public hunting area about 50 miles from our farm. I do not truly remember the shot, but there was a “bang!” and the bird tumbled.
My second flash of thought was “Oh, no! I’ve shot a hen!” Fortunately, the disguised male of the phasianus colchicus species was not a hen, but it was the strangest coloration of any rooster I have held in my hand in more than 60 years of pheasant hunting.
The hard-hit bird was stone dead at its crash site. Abbey found it and retrieved it without hesitation, motivated by Scout, Dale’s Brittany, who was eager to show his stuff by making the retrieve himself.
At my feet, they engaged in a brief tug-o-war to establish right of possession. Scout, ever the gentleman, conceded to Abbey, not always a lady, when she warned him with a throaty growl that somehow made it past her feather-stuffed mouth.
Abbey handed me this most peculiar rooster, and I opened the gun and investigated a birddog-mussed but not badly mutilated cockbird. From the white ring around its neck, that characteristic mark for which the ring-necked pheasant is named, to the crown of its feathery topknot the head of this rooster was almost entirely white.
The next feature that grabbed my attention was its legs. Instead of the sturdy dark gray, hard, scaly appendages that account for the run-like-the-devil sprinting speed of all other pheasants, the legs of this bird were bright yellow, soft, pliable, and obviously weak. No wonder he had regarded a burst into fight as his only chance for escape.
Dale and I looked over the patches of white body feathers, the almost pure white underside of the wings, and the pair of white-slashed tail feathers. Of course I wanted to blame the bird’s genetic mutations on the millions of gallons of agricultural chemicals we dump onto the soil of our Midwest farms, without any proof that was the actual cause.
Turns out this genetic aberration is not so rare as we first thought.
Back home, my beautiful blonde wife, who is much more skilled than I at conducting online research, found an article on the Pheasant Forever website, accompanied by a few photos that displayed a rooster with almost exactly the same white-patch color patterns as the one I had shot that morning.
Both pheasants had most of the usual characteristics of a ring-necked rooster, but the splotches of white on the head, back, wings, and tail were caused by a genetic condition called leucism (pronounced LUKE-ism). “Leukos” is the Greek word for white. The PF article provided more explanation:
The degree of leucism varies with a bird’s genetic makeup. The reduction of color in the bird’s plumage is due to an inadequate deposition of pigments (melanin) only in the bird’s feathers. Skin and eye tone remain their normal pigment and color.
Leucism is distinctly different than albinism – birds that feature a total lack of melanin, appear to be pure white or opaque, and exhibit pink eyes and skin. (Yes, you heard that correctly, pink skin.) Although leucism is rare, hunters are much more likely to harvest a rooster displaying traits of leucism, rather than an albino rooster.
I am attributing the cause of death for this rooster to leucism. At least three times this season, my futile shot at a wildly flushing pheasant has been too late and too far behind. Fixated on the prominent white head of this rooster, I swung the barrels of the old Lefever double gun far enough ahead of his flight path to intersect with the shot pattern. Death by leucism. And a one-ounce charge of No. 5 copper plated shot.