My search for the Wild Phoenix

A few years ago, while searching for locations in Suffolk, England for my first novel, “The Last Music Bearer” I kept an eye out for a Phoenix. This is one of the areas of ​​England where these birds are found in the wild. There are only around 50-100 pairs of wild Phoenix to be found in the wild in the UK (at most).

As it happens, I never saw a Phoenix (what a surprise, I hear you mutter sarcastically) but I did see something similar and was quite pleased with that sighting. So by now you’re saying: “But there’s no such things as a Phoenix…” but that’s where you’re wrong…

“a stag’s life is four time a crow’s,
and a raven’s life makes three stags old,
while the phoenix outlives nine ravens…”

Before moving on to the legendary bird of Greek folklore that rises from the ashes and provides its feathers for magic wands (Harry’s and Voldemort’s wands, certainly, are said to contain a feather from Fawkes, the Phoenix that belongs to Dumbledore) let’s dodge sideways for a moment to an equally unlikely beast: the unicorn. 

Golden Pheasants fighting

The unicorn has been described, since ancient times, as a beast with a single large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead, the animal was mentioned in scientific journals by various natural scientists (and is even mentioned in the Holy Bible and is called re’em) and I think it is important to note that the unicorn of the ancient Greeks was not a mythical beast but, instead, the object of scientific research. And that’s not really surprising, because the ancient Greeks were fearless and adventurous sailors and their explorers likely found (or were told plausible and evidenced accounts) about a beast we call a narwhal.

Golden Pheasants in China

The word for a narwhal in Greek means “one-tooth one-horn” and these white whales have a single long tusk, which is in fact a canine tooth, and their single tusk projects from the left side of the upper jaw, through the lip, to become a single left helix spiral “horn”. . No one knows why the creature has only one “horn” but scientists surmise it might be used as a weapon, or used as a tool to open breathing holes in sea ice, or in to feed on fish that are stunned by the long tooth, or as an acoustic organ for communicating, or used in “rutting” to aggressively  gain sexual dominance over other males (females do not have the long tusk) and the animals perhaps fight with them  like ruminant deer and antelopes.

If you came across a narwhal tusk and you were told it came from a rare animal that is equipped with one horn, I expect you’d think it came from a unicorn… and  medieval Europeans certainly traded in  narwhal tusks (even though they knew what they were, the tusks were nevertheless sold as unicorn horns.) For example, Queen Elizabeth I was given a carved and bejeweled narwhal tusk which was said to be worth 10,000 pounds sterling—which is about equivalent of a castle!  Yes, so my point is that unicorns exist (as narwhals exist) though perhaps not in the enchanted and fanciful way that creative persons such as authors and painters tend to envision them. And so, returning to my search for the true Phoenix…

Golden Pheasant hovering

Yes, while I was in Suffolk I was searching for a rare and quite beautiful Galliform. These are ground-feeding birds in the same family as jungle birds, peacocks, and other game birds (the humble chicken is also from the same family) and their main habit is to strut around, fluffing up their tail and head feathers, scrubbing about on woodland floors and pecking for grain, leaves and invertebrates.. They rarely fly (but they will fly if they want to, but most seem reluctant to fly, I once had a rooster named Peter and he would fly to the top of the roof of our house and it took a lot of coaxing and grain to get him down) ) and gamefowl have been on earth for a very long time (they survived the  K-T Event that killed off the dinosaurs, for example) and the particular galliform bird I wanted to see in Suffolk was the Chrysolophus pictus (golden pheasant) and I was in one of only two parts of the U.K. where this bird still (perhaps) lives wild. 

You’d be surprised if you saw such an enchanting bird wild in the U.K. and you might think it had escaped from a zoo or aviary such is its tropical plumage. The male has a golden yellow crest, his upper back is green, and his rump is egg-yolk yellow. He has a bright scarlet chest, with flanks of red and light brown redcurrants, and bright pink underpants! Even his legs are bright yellow… and his tail (these feathers account for two-thirds of his total length) is speckled gold, so when he flies from the forest floor (as he will, if alarmed) it will seem as if he has lifted himself from flames. 

Golden Pheasant

Since Phoenix birds are known in Chinese culture, it is not surprising to learn that golden pheasants emanate from remote forests in the mountainous areas of western China. But like peacocks (which share the same family traits but are originally from India), they were quickly exported around the world, preserved for food, and enjoyed for their exotic plumage. Some specimens escaped captivity, and a few survive in feral populations around the globe. 

So why is a golden pheasant a phoenix? Well, in very ancient Slavic folklore, it is believed that a Phoenix, a magical and prophetic bird that shines and burns, comes from a very distant land (China perhaps?) and if a wanderer ever glimpsed such a bird on a journey into the wild, it would be both a blessing and a harbinger. Described by Slavic mythology as having a majestic plumage that glows brightly emitting red, orange and yellow light, it was sometimes known as the fire hawk or simply fire bird (due to its fire feathers). Doesn’t that fit the description of a golden pheasant?

In Chinese mythology one bird rules over all other birds in the Kingdom of Animals. This bird is known as Fenghuang (sometimes referred to as the hoho bird), and it is magically connected with dragons and is often depicted in the likeness of a golden pheasant along with a dragon. In fact, the bird was depicted on China’s state emblem between 1913 and 1928. And although images of this bird have been created and celebrated for more than eight thousand years, all representations (even the most stylized of artworks) offer to capture the substance of a golden pheasant.

Some scholars even think that Phoenix birds are mentioned in the Holy Bible (chalkydri) in the second book of Enoch.

So yeah, I’m pretty sure the Phoenix exists (because unicorns exist as narwhals) and the Phoenix exists in earthly form ​​as a golden pheasant.

reeves pheasant

P.S. the bird I saw on my trip to Suffolk (a relative of the Golden Pheasant) was a Reeves pheasant (above.) This is a game bird that has been kept in captivity in Britain since the early 19th century and occasionally manages to escape the gamekeepers and head into the wild. Slightly less delicate and vulnerable to predators (possibly because they are less flashy and luxurious than their relatives, the golden pheasants), so they seem to survive better and longer in a British woodland habitat. Still very attractive though, with a long soft tail and what looked like a white mask, I was very happy when I glimpsed the creature. Especially because I knew it was the cousin of a Phoenix!

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

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