Romeo in a feathered brown tux
Each morning at dawn, the plaintive cry pierces the silence. It's a tooting sound, like a locomotive whistle - two octaves too high.
I wake up, scramble out of bed, grab the binoculars, and hurry out onto the deck. The lonely creature stands on the edge of the field, arrayed in his finery. His white neck band is dazzling above his golden-brown chest.
The air on our land in south-central Wisconsin throbs with romance this time of year. Canada geese honk a duet overhead, and the tom turkey struts around with his harem in tow. The chatter of a flock of red-winged blackbirds as they flirt is deafening. A pileated woodpecker shows off his vigor, the scarlet crest on his head a blur as he hammers on the pine tree just outside our bedroom.
It happens every year. The birds partner off to build their nests and start a new generation. But one species that should be part of this courtship ritual had been absent from our land.
Then, about two weeks ago, at the crack of dawn, we heard an unfamiliar serenade. The bird books describe it as a cackle, but it sounds more like a toot, to me. My husband sat bolt upright in bed, his head cocked to one side.
"That's a pheasant!" said Jon with delight.
"That's nice," I mumbled sleepily, and I pulled the pillow back over my head.
"Wake up," he said, nudging me. "Pheasants have found our place." Jon's enthusiasm pulled me awake. We went out in the yard and looked for the bird, but he remained elusive, hidden in the tall grass.
When we moved to the country six years ago, we pledged to restore our weary farmland to its natural state - oak savanna. Having no experience, we used trial and error.
Pheasants are common throughout our region, but we had never seen any on our property, and we were determined to bring them back. So we bought 50 pheasant chicks and, with much fanfare one sunny afternoon, released them into the wild. Not a one survived. With insufficient grass cover, they fell victim to red-tailed hawks.
Since then we've proceeded more cautiously and educated ourselves about land rehabilitation. We no longer rent land to neighbors for cattle grazing, as this damaged the creek bed and led to soil erosion; we continue to weed out invasive species like multiflora rose; and each spring we plant trees - more than 20,000 so far.
But Jon reserved the 17 acres on the south side of our house for prairie grass. Since the land was first settled in the 1850s, these fields have been cultivated, most recently for alternating crops of corn and soybeans - including ample applications of pesticides.
Jon developed a friendship with a local organic seed grower, received a grant from Pheasants Forever, a Minnesota-based conservation organization, and went to work. The field now ripples with 6-foot-high native grasses - Indian grass, switch grass, and big bluestem. A sprinkling of black-eyed Susan and purple bergamot creates a stunning midsummer landscape.
The tall grasses prevent soil erosion on this southern slope and serve as a sanctuary for birds, providing ample nesting grounds. The birds moved in, but years passed - and we kept wondering when the pheasants would return.
Now here he was at last, one lonely male, looking for a mate.
As the days passed, the pheasant grew braver - or increasingly amorous. He occasionally emerged from hiding and meandered around the edge of the lawn. His black-and-red head bopped forward and back as his eyes darted here and there. The white collar around his neck evoked a tuxedo donned to impress the ladies.
But no female answered his call. He strutted over to the pile of bird seed we'd placed 50 feet from the house. He chatted with the blue jays who were trying to hog all the seed. But the pheasant was not really interested in them.
"Will he get a girl, do you think?" I asked Jon as we took turns with the binoculars. "That forlorn cry is breaking my heart."
"Love springs eternal," answered Jon cryptically. But neither of us had seen signs of any female pheasants.
Then, a few evenings ago, I was strolling along the trails that traverse our grassy field, the stems soaring above my head, camouflaging me almost as well as the birds. I heard the pheasant's familiar high-pitched toot - and froze. He was close.
Suddenly I saw him, a few feet away, deep in the grass. The feathers of his head were shades of purple, green, and bright red. They stood out brilliantly against the drab brown of the early spring meadow.
He walked a couple of paces, tooted once more, and then settled in to wait me out. I stood for a long time, hoping a female would join him. But the pheasant had more patience than I. He sat for so long that I gave up and continued my walk.
"Oh, well," I whispered in consolation. "Maybe you'll find a girl next spring."
I had gone only a few yards when there was a sudden explosion from the grass on the other side of the path. Up burst a pheasant in flight.
I held my breath as I watched it fly off, its wings fluttering madly. No red head, no white collar. She was clearly a sedately dressed, timid sort of girl, shyly waiting for the flamboyant boy to approach her.
The pheasant still croons loudly several times a day. But my heart no longer fills with pity when I hear his cry of longing.
I know somewhere out there, hidden in the tall grass, true love waits.