Editor’s Notebook: Observer chronicles pretty birds, hopeful hunters

<p>Ringed-neck pheasants were Pacific Northwest celebrity wildlife in 1897, when this oyster label was registered with the Oregon State Trademarks Office.</p>

Lounging beside U.S. Highway 101 like a hitchhiker in fancy pajamas, a ring-necked pheasant was in more danger from log trucks last Wednesday than from hunters. Like so many “wild” creatures here on the far western edge of America, habituation to tame humans seemed to have made it docile enough to approach and stroke its intricately patterned back.

An Asian species first introduced in America in 1881, ring-necked pheasants have been planted near Chinook for decades by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. They’ve naturalized quite well and are sometimes encountered on the Long Beach Peninsula and elsewhere in the county. Although theoretically bred just for hunting, many more people value them simply as decorative and exotic neighbors — walking Christmas tree ornaments.

Like the quail that delight by exploding into noisy flight like small, feathered landmines when I pass by in the forest, a good number of pheasants have taken up a Robin Hood existence in the woods. They are beyond easy reach of most shotgun-toters.

Pheasants have been a topic of interest in the Chinook Observer since 1901, when we reported on the top of page 1, “The Washington game law was shot all to pieces at the last regular Legislature. There is now said to be no law in the state protecting pheasant and quail.” In a lapse of attention, lawmakers accidentally killed off all the protections for imported game birds, along with axing the penalty for not buying a hunting license, then priced at $1.

Pheasant and duck hunting were major recreational activities for the men and boys of the Lower Columbia River a century ago, as they were for my dad up in Bellingham. Stalking birds with his three boys eventually became one of the most zestful aspects of his life and of ours. These splendid autumn days, the sun slanting down through the morning fog to set the Columbia aglow, put me much in mind of his innocent enthusiasm about the start of hunting season.

I know talk of hunting will put some readers off, but take comfort in the fact that we weren’t ever much good at it. Warmly nestled side-by-side on the bench seat of his Ford pickup, we’d listen to the football game while driving between the reservoirs and canals of the big irrigation project north of the reservation. At long intervals, we’d bail out, creep up to the edge of a waterway and lunge up, often finding nothing but placid water laced with long streams of algae. Coming home empty handed was counted as a victory over the smelly chore of cleaning ducks.

My distant predecessors at the newspaper wrote up many observations about hunting:

“The rod and gun club have abolished the by-law which fines a member $10 for crawling a mile on a lone teal and killing him with a club.”

— Sept. 27, 1901

“The fishermen and hunters have done a good business up the creeks and on the tidelands this week. The weather has been wet, dry, cloudy, sunshiny, warm, cold, hot, windy, calm and stormy — and that’s no josh. The tide reached 10 feet Monday noon, but did no damage; building and painting has continued without interruption, and on the whole the town is happy, with no kick on the weather.”

— Nov. 1, 1901

“Ed Babbidge is economizing on his meat bill since he got married. He carries a gun with him on the steamer and drops some kind of duck every day for dinner. His last shot was a mud hen — by mistake — which he presented to a friend.”

— Nov. 15, 1901

“The Chinook Rod & Gun Club was treated to [a visit]. Alex Gilbert, the Astoria capitalist, was out shooting with the boys and one lone canvasback settled among the decoys. Alex blasted away with both barrels; the duck paid no attention. Jack Craig was stalking a cripple. Next broadside of three barrels that Alex shot was a success. It knocked the eyes out of most of the decoys, killed the canvasback and Jack took what was left, one shot in the hand and one on his head. Jack came running up to Alex and asked him, ‘Here! Are you shooting ducks or only me?’ … Jack says he had to get pretty close to ground sometimes during the Phillipine war, but he never had to hug mother earth so close as when he looked into Gilbert’s gun and then behind it saw him with the light of battle in his eyes.”

— Dec. 9, 1904

And then there is the account of ducks being cleaned for Christmas dinner, their crops found to contain numerous small gold nuggets pecked up from a local creek. I’m keeping those details to myself. Maybe it’s time to oil my shotgun.

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