by Alexe van Beuren
When I heard tales of a local man who ships exotic birds all over the country, I had to track him down.
His name is James Tribble.
Behind his rural home in Yalobusha County and under the shade of several large oak trees, Tribble raises and breeds exotic pheasants – along with a few other unusual birds. There are 52 breeds of exotic pheasants in the world, mostly hailing from China and other Far-East countries. During his years of raising pheasants, Tribble has had at least half of these species in his backyard.
As I trail Tribble between a series of pens and coops, he tells me how he went from being a retired telephone repair man to raising birds from countries neither of us have ever been to.
“Eleven years ago, I got chickens, and then I happened upon people wanting ring-tailed pheasants, the regular kind. I sold those for about five dollars a pair. Then I heard about exotic breeds, which sell for hundreds.”
Despite the fiscal advantages of raising pricey birds, Tribble views his pheasants as a hobby – and an intelligent one. “Don’t ever think a bird doesn’t have a personality,” Tribble tells me. “They’ve got about a six-sound vocabulary, and they know who you are.”
To support the cost of expensive feed and the price of the birds themselves, Tribble breeds each pair – removing the eggs so that the female will lay more– and raises the baby pheasants until they’re old enough to sell.
“It’s just like cotton farming. Sometimes you have a good year and everything goes right, and sometimes – last year, I lost my first 40 eggs when we went out of town for a few days and the electricity went out.”
Since that time, Tribble has returned to taking the eggs from the pheasants and slipping them under his Brahma Bantams after he removes the chicken eggs. The hens incubate the eggs and then raise the baby pheasants, sheltering them under their wings in bad weather and teaching the adopted birds how to eat. As Tribble says, “It’s the old-timey way, but it works better.”
This year, he found his first pheasant egg on March 15. Egg-laying will continue through the end of June, and he’ll have all the baby pheasants he can expect by the end of July. In mid-September, he’ll begin selling and shipping the fledgling pheasants and continue until his stock runs out.
Tribble takes care to emphasize the importance of the post office in his business; as he says, “I couldn’t do this without the Post Office in Water Valley. The people there are my partners.”
Since breeds such as the rare Crimson-horned pheasant can sell upwards of $525 for a pair (with the buyer paying for the costly shipping), I asked an obvious question: who buys birds too fancy and too pretty to eat?
“Me and other people like me have started a false economy,” he says. “We buy and sell to each other.” He then amends his statement, saying that through the donations of exotic pheasant breeders, rare and threatened breeds like Swinhoe’s pheasants have been reestablished in the wild.
Right now, Tribble has breeding pairs of Swinhoe’s pheasants, white-eared, blue-eared, Lady Amherst, Elliot, Ijina copper, Ghigi golden, Crimson-horned, Temminck’s Tragopan, and Himalayan Monal pheasants, as well as several mountain quail native to the Sierras, Chinese white Mandarin ducks, a pair of white peafowl, and the Brahma Bantam chickens.
In stark contrast to the whites and blues of the ducks and quail, the male pheasants sport every color in the rainbow. The most unusual is Nepal’s national emblem, the Himalayan Morel, which looks like an oil slick has been poured over his back, boasting iridescent blues, greens, and purples.
Despite their beauty, not all pheasants are a walk in the park. I asked Tribble about the heaped piles of branches in each pen, and he told me that some males tend to attack their wives.
“He’d kill her sometimes, if he could,” Tribble says. To thwart such domestic violence, Tribble piles branches as a hiding place, and clips the males’ wings so that the female can fly out of his reach. “That’s saved quite a few lives.”
Raising pheasants in Mississippi has its challenges. For one, their native habitats tend to differ; most of these birds hail from snowy peaks in the Himalayas and other Far-East mountain chains.
“They actually do better in the winter than they do in the summer,” Tribble tells me. “As long as they are protected from the north wind. Wind blows all the warmth out of their feathers.” Given a wind break, his birds can stand temperatures as low as thirty below.
He also surrounds the birds with an electric fence to deter dogs and snakes.
“I can call the county about dogs,” he says. “But snakes will get under the chickens and eat the pheasant eggs. I had a big old snake a few years ago that ate seven of my pheasant eggs. He was lying under the barn and I couldn’t reach his head to kill him, so I grabbed his tail and cracked him like a whip, and all of those eggs came flying out.” He shakes his head. “They splattered everywhere.”
As we crouch in front of the cage of his oldest and favorite pheasant, Tribble holds out a strawberry to coax John-boy, a Temminck’s Tragopan, towards us for a picture.
It turns out that pheasants eat all kinds of food. As well as their special-ordered exotic fowl grain, Tribble grows blackberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, and vegetables for the pheasants’ dietary needs. On the advice of an exotic fowl expert in Vermont, Tribble began dragging termite-infested logs out of the woods for the white-eared pheasants. They tear the log apart, eating not only the bugs but the soft rotten wood.
“You can’t do pheasants like you can chickens,” Tribble says. “It’s more trouble than raising babies.” Despite their finicky ways, all the birds I see are glossy and full of health in clean pens. It’s clear that Tribble takes the time to raise these beautiful birds right.
After our tour, we sit in lawn chairs among the birds and in the shade, watching the peacock fan out his snow-white tail as Tribble tells me about the Vermont expert’s project in Malaysia, where they are re-establishing some native pheasants into an acre of aviary.
“If I had to do it all over again,” he says, “I’d go to school like he did.” He shakes his head and taps a cigarette into his palm. “Traveling and fooling with birds is a heck of a nice way to make a living.”