The Lonely Bird in Shelby Bottoms

The summer heat hadn’t broken in late September for Jenny Piper’s habitual five-mile walk along the Shelby Bottoms Greenway when she saw it. “It moved so slowly, like, ‘Hey, look at me,’” Piper says of the bird pecking through the grass just off the asphalt path. Its beak was too small for a parrot, but it had the same flashy coloration of a tropical bird. “That’s crazy,” she remembers thinking. Then, “My son’s going to love this.”
     Piper, who carries her phone with her for music as she exercises, snapped a few quick photos. She crept forward; although “it didn’t seem scared,” she says, the bird slipped into the undergrowth, and disappeared.
     Piper brought her photos to Shelby Bottoms Nature Center director Denise Weyer a few days later, and began to lay out what she’d seen: a scarlet body with shimmering blue markings; a gold head; a long, patterned tail; and a disinterest in flying.
     “How big was it?” Weyer asked.
     “Three feet?” Piper said.
     Weyer, a self-described “bird person,” didn’t think long before saying, “We don’t have any birds like that.”
     “Well, you have one.”
     Piper and Weyer had never seen the strange bird in Shelby Bottoms for good reason: Golden Pheasants (Chrysolophus pictus) are native to the mountains of Central and Western China.
     In fact, many people have no idea that even the more common Ring-necked Pheasant is also a non-indigenous species in the United States. Imported directly from Shanghai to Oregon in 1881, it anchored and spread its seed here as it had in Europe. With established populations in many of the 50 states, it’s become a staple of the American outdoorsman. South Dakota went so far as to name it its state bird—one of only three introduced species to be chosen across the U.S.
     The Golden Pheasant, a more striking relative, has an even older history in the U.S., with many historians tracing it back to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in the 18th century. Despite this country’s fertile pheasant soil, the Golden Pheasant has never taken root, in Nashville or elsewhere.
     Now a single Golden Pheasant, the peacock of its family tree, roosts alone in Shelby Bottoms.
     If she were a betting woman, Weyer would put her money on a backyard enthusiast with an escaped pet as the source of the city park’s newest resident.
     The Golden Pheasant is described frequently as one of the hardiest species to breed in captivity, and East Nashville, she says, is in the midst of DIY fowl-cultivation mania.
     “Most of the [non-native] species that we have, particularly avian, are always associated with humans,” Weyer says. “We couldn’t keep a bird out of this park when they’re just in the neighbor-next-door’s yard.”
     At least five of the seven exotic birds living in Tennessee currently have populations in Shelby Bottoms, including species of swan, dove, pigeon, and duck.
     To be clear, this is not Red Alert for Weyer and her staff like it would be for other, more “invasive” species. If the insidious kudzu vine (home of record: Japan) were to pop up, she says, there are detailed procedures ready to be implemented to ensure its thick blanket of vines doesn’t smother native flora. No, a solitary Golden Pheasant roaming the park has a much simpler, more gruesome solution.
     In his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes described man as animal by likening his life to one of “continual fear, and danger of violent death … solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Such is the life of a pheasant in the wild.
     On God’s green earth, for the Ring-necked Pheasant to celebrate a birthday is an accomplishment, and its goal is a lot like a Lana Del Rey song: a lot of sex before a tragic death.
     “So I was looking at the predators for pheasants,” I say to Weyer.
     “Yeah,” she says, groaning.
     “Foxes.”
     “Yes.”
     “Coyotes, to a lesser extent.”
     “Yes.”
     “Skunks.” 
     “Yes.”
     “Raccoons.”
     “Could be,” she says.
     “Hawks, owls.”
     “Hawks and owls, especially.”
     “I can’t imagine any of these on the list that you don’t have here,” I say.
     “We have all of those.”
     “It’s not looking good.”
     “It’s not looking good, but I can’t believe it’s been alive as long as it has,” Weyer says. “With its bright coloration, I was sure the first time I heard of this bird would be the last time.” Instead, she says, there have been four other known sightings over the course of almost two months.
     “I’ve read that they’re hardy birds, and I guess he is.”
     It was early on a Monday morning in November, and I was the only person I saw on the five miles of the grass trails I ran. Then I saw it: a startled scarlet bird, maybe three feet long, on the path. It began to run, pacing itself 10 feet ahead, before ducking into the underbrush. Believing it an escaped tropical pet and too cold to fly (headline reads: “Local Man Rescues Exotic Bird”), I followed it, bent double, taking slaps of poison ivy vine to the face on the narrow deer path, aware I was tracing an Alice in Wonderland plot point.
     As bright as the bird was, I soon lost it, and after a few more minutes I gave up—work started in an hour. I guessed an exotic bird would make an easy meal for a lucky raccoon, and that would be that.
     Then, two days later, I saw it again, as have at least four others, pecking among the grass off the Greenway.
     The Tennessee state bird is the mockingbird, but as far as I’m aware Nashville is without an official city bird. Ditto for the East Nashville post.
     As I think about myself, a recent transplant joining a community with its own menagerie of transplants, I can think of no better bird to represent us all: exotic, flashy, far from the soil of our birth but with teeth bared to survive in this, our found home—and, with any luck, to someday find a mate.
     For East Nashville, I vote for the Golden Pheasant. If he can make it, maybe there’s yet hope for us all.