Unexpected find shows that Hillsborough is for the birds


By:Minx McCloud
   Every so often, one of my feature articles leads to a phone call from a reader, preferably the kind that doesn’t start with "I’ve got a bone to pick with you!" or "Are you out of your freakin’ mind?"
   I recently received a very pleasant phone call from Carol Higgins, a longtime Hillsborough resident.
   Carol had read my story about a local birder, Chris Aquila, who participated in the World Series of Birding in May. The many varieties of birds in the Hillsborough grasslands and on the Duke Estate played a large part in his team’s victory in the competition, which consisted of spotting the most species.
   It would have been interesting if they could have added to their list the two mysterious avian visitors that Carol and her husband, Murf, have seen occasionally in the past two years.
   One is a large white bird with a long, long tail, and a fanned crest on top of its head. The other looks like a pheasant, but is more colorful than those usually spotted around here. Carol wasn’t sure of what she had seen, but she knew these birds didn’t appear to be native to Hillsborough.
   The couple first spotted them in June 1999, and when they showed up this year after obviously surviving the New Jersey winter, Carol was intrigued.
   She called me to ask if I would contact Chris and see if he could shed some light on where the birds might have come from, or if he would wish to visit their property.
   In the beginning, the Carol and Murf had heard what sounded a bit like cries for help coming from their far pasture. They hiked up there and saw a beautiful white bird, certainly like none they had seen before that wasn’t in captivity. On another occasion, they saw the pheasant.
   Carol was able to get as close as 10 feet from the birds, which seems to indicate that they were somewhat familiar with humans. Carol’s neighbors have also spotted the birds at different times.
   I stopped over to see her and she showed me several pictures she had taken. She was most interested in the one she had identified as a Lady Amherst pheasant, a bird usually indigenous to the mountains of Central and Western China.
   They managed to identify it in a rather odd way. Murf had gone to the local liquor store to pick up a bottle of wine. As he perused the many types and varieties available, he noticed a bottle of 1998 Torresella Pinot Grigio. There, on the label, was one of the birds they had spotted on their property.
   "Did you see this bird before or after you drank the wine?" I teased Carol when she related her story. She laughed and assured me that they had been stone cold sober at the time.
   After a bit of surfing on the Internet, I’ve figured out that the other bird, a gorgeous, pure white peacock, was exactly that: a white peacock. It is simply spectacular, even with its tail feathers folded. I would have paid good money (to God, maybe?) to see it fanning its tail in true peacock fashion!
   I spoke to Chris, who said it’s likely that a couple of birds belonging to a local breeder escaped. Certainly, these birds do not normally thrive in Hillsborough, although I think any bird that lives in the mountains of China would probably find survival fairly easy in Hillsborough.
   The fact that the birds have returned this year is pretty neat as far as Carol is concerned. They are obviously hardy, and what’s more, they seem to like it in Hillsborough (probably because they don’t have to pay the taxes).
   When I was a child, one of our neighbors raised peacocks. You had to walk through the woods to get to his house and at night, strange high-pitched cries echoed in the darkness. A legend was built around those woods, the legend of the White Man, a huge, pale ghost who came and went as he pleased and chased many a frightened child in the process.
   Local kids said that often there was a flash of white in the woods that accompanied those strange, banshee-like cries. Our parents seemed only too happy to feed our fears by agreeing that there was indeed "something strange" in the woods, but I think they did that simply to discourage us from going in there at night.
   I realize now that the flash of white and the spooky cry was probably just a peacock startled by a neighborhood cat, but the legend was fun in a "scare-the-bejesus-out-of-you" way. My old friends tell me that the neighbor is gone, the peacocks are gone, and sadly, even the woods no longer exist. Ah, progress.
   But Carol saw "her" birds as recently as two months ago, so if you’re out walking some night and you hear an eerie cry that sounds a bit like a call for help (or even a call from beyond the grave. Bwoo-ha-ha-ha!), it’s probably the white peacock and the Lady Amherst Pheasant that live in the Higginses’ far pasture.
   By the way, if you’re a breeder who has lost two birds from your flock, you can rest assured that they seem to be happy and healthy. You won’t find out more about them through me though, because I want them to remain free.
   It’s just nice to know they’re out there somewhere and I might stumble upon them at any time. I fervently hope they will not become road kill or be shot by a BB gun before I do find them, but after all, this is New Jersey.
   Actually, I think that one of the things that’s nice about this area of New Jersey is that when you’re fed up with the ubiquitous mini-marts, strip malls, and other needless development, it’s sometimes possible to walk out into your own back yard and be delighted by the unexpected wonders there.
   Now doesn’t that make you feel better about your property taxes?
Minx McCloud is a free-lance journalist who writes about life in New Jersey. She can be reached at [email protected].
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