You could learn a lot from an old bird in his seventh year of life.
When I woke up this morning, I immediately noticed something was different. It was just starting to break daylight, and I hadn’t heard the first vehicle come down the old gravel road. I also noticed the “hoot” owls were not nearly as numerous as they had been for the past many weeks. There were no strange noises all around me this morning such as coughing, sneezing, burping and laughing. I did not hear the first sick hen calling from the shadows, way before it was light enough for any sane turkey to be on the ground, instead of the safety of a tree.
Yep, turkey season was finally over, and I was alive to tell about it.
You see, I am a 7-year-old turkey gobbler with a 12 1/2-inch beard and 2-inch spurs. I am a much-sought-after trophy by turkey hunters, but I have lived to gobble another day. You know, it’s really not that hard to outsmart humans; you just have to be patient. This is a trait that most humans have little of.
I guess I’d better go back to the beginning and explain my life, so that you as humans will be able to understand a little better.
I was hatched on one warm, glorious day sometime in late spring. I was the first to come out of my shell, and I remember it very well, all of that hard pushing and shoving just to be able to take my first breath of the sweetest air that I have ever smelled. I looked around and stood on very wobbly legs, and noticed that others were starting to break from their shells.
After a while, there were nine of us, five females and four males. There were still three eggs that were moving around and trying to break free, but mom told us it was time to move. I asked her about leaving those siblings behind, and she commented that it was dangerous for us to be there now, because predators could smell those hatched eggs, and we had to leave the area immediately. It was either sacrificing those three or taking a chance on losing all.
It was hard walking in the wet grass at first, and it was getting colder as the day grew late. Mom was constantly pecking and scratching, but none of us was hungry at this time. We still had big ol’ stomachs, known as our yolk sacs.
I remember the first night, it was so cold. Mom spread her wings, and we all got under them for the night. But only seven of us made it through. We lost a sister and brother.
The next day we traveled to a big field and hid in the middle of a briar thicket. Mom told us to remain there while she went and ate. We really didn’t have anything to do but stay in a pile and be still. I remember one of those days that a fox came in the thicket with us, and we were so still that he walked within the length of a jake’s beard of us and never saw us.
After several nights and days, we started to grow feathers on our small bodies. These were really neat because they kept us warm at night and dry when it rained. Mom was teaching us how to catch and eat mosquitoes, crickets, worms and a wide variety of seeds. She would scratch the ground, and I would be amazed at the living “smorgasbord” that was there just for the pecking.
There was a lot of talking that was going on within our family. Mom never taught us how to talk; we just knew it from the time we hatched. There was the loud “putt” that would mean get out of dodge fast, that something was there that would eat us. There was also the “whine” that meant everything was fine. The long, loud “yelping” meant, “I want company.”
I will never forget the first time I flew. There was a big snake in the grass, and he grabbed one of my brothers. Mom sounded the alarm “putt,” and we were all airborne before we knew it. We flew up in a tree alongside our mom, and watched as the snake had his breakfast.
We stayed in the tree a long time, and finally returned to the field as if nothing had happened. My other brothers and sisters did not seem to notice that there was one less. Not even my mom seemed to care. But I did. I think this is what set me apart and the reason I am able to tell you this story. I would not forget the day-to-day experiences as the rest of them would. They all would make the same stupid mistakes every day.
One day we had met up with several other mothers and their broods, and were all eating in a field. I was keeping a sharp eye for predators all around us when a danger that I did not know existed came from the sky. It was a red-tailed hawk. No warning, no sound, just instant death for a friend of mine I had just recently made.
We all flew to the safety of the woods, and I asked Mom what chance we had.
“We can’t keep a lookout on the ground and the air,” I said. “How will any of us ever grow up and become grown?”
She told me that we must learn to watch on the ground for the shadows of an approaching hawk. She said we must always feed with the sun at our backs so as to pick up the shadows in front of us, because a hawk seldom attacked with the sun in his eyes. This is a lesson that I have never forgotten, and it has saved my life numerous times.
It did take me quite some time to learn to distinguish between the shadow of a hawk and a buzzard, though. You see, a hawk’s shadow will be in a “V” shape as he is diving, a buzzard’s will be in a regular “winged” shape.
My first summer passed quickly, and I was real big for my age. I could outrun, outfly and outfight all the other 30 or 40 turkeys in our flock.
The days were getting shorter and the nights much colder. We were approaching the time of the year that Mom called “hard times.” There would be few bugs to eat and little or no seeds. We had to learn to scratch under leaves and find different kinds of nuts if we were going to make it. The trees had lost their leaves, and the wind was cold at night. I was afraid always because we could be seen so easily on those open limbs.
One night a giant owl came calling. He had great tufts of hair on his head that made him look like he had horns. He was as big as some of the females on the limbs, and he started to bump them toward the base of the tree. We could not see very well, but apparently he could.
When one of those girls was pushed against the trunk of the tree, he sprang into action. He jumped up and caught her head in his vise-like feet. She was trying her best to fly, but he had her against the tree. Blood was coming from her head, and very quickly she was dead. He ate her right there in front of us, and with all of us wondering who would be next.
We were afraid to fly because we couldn’t see well enough. I decided to take my chances anyway. I would rather fly into a tree and kill myself than make a meal for that old owl. I managed to land safely in another tree far away from there, and nothing else happened that night.
Sometime during the night I realized if I was going to make it long enough to grow up, I would have to leave the company of the flock. They just drew too much attention. I started to spend my days alone until one day I bumped into three old gobblers that stayed to themselves. At first they would chase me off, but I realized they had to know something special in order to survive this long.
Even though they wouldn’t take me into their midst, I hung close by. I ran when they ran, flew when they flew and relaxed when they relaxed. I noticed they roosted in trees that were thick and had lots of branches on them, so I did the same.
After a while they took me into their confidence. The leader of the group, George, told me that just about everything that is alive is a turkey’s enemy.
“Everything likes to eat turkey,” he used to say.
The days started to grow long again, and a change began to take place in me. I noticed I was starting to grow a beard and my waddles were starting to bother me, getting heavier and all.
The three old turkeys were really starting to get ill with each other, fussing and fighting over things that used to not matter at all. They were beginning to make this strange turkey sound that I would learn was a gobble. They would blow out and strut around a lot.
Each morning while we were still in the trees they would start to gobble as loud as they could at the first break of day. It wasn’t a lot at first, but it got to be more and more each day.
It wasn’t many more days until the three old boys broke apart for good. They just couldn’t agree on anything anymore, and all of them were wanting to find their own girlfriends.
I followed George off one day, and never have seen the other two since. We traveled all one day, being real particular in where we were going and watching for danger. George seemed to be even more alert than usual. He told me this was the most dangerous time of the year because a new predator was about to come on the scene, a human.
The very next morning a strange new urge came over me. While George was announcing to the world about his kingdom, I felt the need to try to gobble myself. It sounded real funny at first, but hey, I could really get to like this.
After a few more tries, I heard George fly down and gobble. I sailed down beside him, and was just getting a gobble out when he jumped on me and beat the gobble right back inside.
After I recovered, I asked him what that was all about
“You keep your mouth shut,” he replied. “There is only one around here that will be doing any gobbling, strutting and breeding, and that one will be me.”
Since he had probably 10 pounds on me and razor-sharp spurs, I was not about to argue. That was a lesson that later would save my life many times.
As the days grew longer still, George would gobble more and more. All he thought about now was the hens. He would strut and drum for hours on end in front of the ladies and not pay me any attention. If I tried to even speak to one of the hens, he would chase me to no end.
One morning I noticed a lot more traffic than usual on the old gravel road that ran next to our woods. I could see the lights coming for a long ways. When these lights would go off and everything would get quiet, it was like they released a bunch of “hoot” owls.
I would hear other turkeys gobble off in the distance and occasionally hear a loud shot. I knew what a gun sounded like from humans being in the woods back in the season of the “hard times,” and I had actually seen some humans, even though they had not seen me.
George had almost stopped gobbling. He would gobble a few times on the roost just to let the hens know where he was that morning, and then he would do nothing but drum.
I remember telling him one morning while we were still in the tree that I heard several hens down on the forest floor. I thought it was kind of early for them to be down there, but there they were, just waiting for us to come and join them.
“Let’s go, George,” I would say. “They’re on that big ol’ pretty ridge you like to strut on.”
George told me not to hurry. Something was wrong; he could just feel it.
“But,” I said, “just listen to them; they’re really excited this morning, and are begging us to come join them. Let’s go!”
“They haven’t moved all morning,” George whispered. “They’re in the same place as they started out.
“How many hens do you know that ever stand in one place for very long? Follow me.”
He flew a long ways away from there and those hens.
I was really puzzled until he explained to me that if those were real hens they would have walked to his tree because he had gobbled to let them know the direction he was, and he was drumming to bring them the final distance. He told me humans could often make the same sound as a female turkey, and you had to beware.
Well, this didn’t make much sense to me, and I told him so. George really got mad and chased me off. I found myself alone and lost after a while of running.
I didn’t know what to do because I did not want to be by myself. It wasn’t long until I heard a turkey gobble down in the woods, and I went in that direction. I knew I had better be quiet and shy because this ol’ boy probably wouldn’t want me around either.
As I got closer, I could hear this little sexy-sounding hen over in the bushes. I couldn’t see her, but I knew she was there. Then I saw the gobbler that was making all of the racket show up. He was right in front of the bushes the hen was hiding in, and he was strutting, gobbling and drumming. A beautiful sight to behold.
I was about to go up and openly admire him when a thunderous sound came from the bushes. The big gobbler went over on his back and was thrashing wildly. I was really confused as to what made this scene come about when I saw a human appear from the bush that I thought the hen was hiding in. He ran to the gobbler and put his foot on his head until he stopped flopping. I was too afraid to run or fly, so I just stayed put. The human never saw me. He picked the gobbler up, threw him over his shoulder and started walking away.
I now understood what George had meant.
I stayed by myself the rest of those days, and did not trust any sound or things that looked like turkeys, but always stood in the same place. Finally, the lights quit coming and owls were not so plentiful. I had survived my first turkey season.
One day in the heat of the summer, I stumbled onto George pecking in a field. He invited me over and told me that he wasn’t angry anymore. I asked him where were his other two buddies, and he said that they did not make it through the season. He had heard from some hens that had joined up with him that humans had killed them both early in the season.
“They just didn’t know how to keep their mouths shut,” he said.
I would always remember those words.
The next spring saw me sprout into a full-grown male gobbler. I was sporting a 9-inch beard and 3/4-inch spurs. I could gobble with the best of them.
George told me one morning it was time for us to split up. He knew that I would want my own hens this spring. He told me to be aware of all the hunters in the woods and to keep my gobbling to a minimum.
I was real good at strutting, gobbling and drumming. Hens would come from all over just to be near me.
One morning I noticed all those lights coming and bringing all of those hoot owls. Instinct told me to gobble as usual, but something in the back of my pea-sized brain told me to hold off this morning.
There was another young male turkey that had moved into my area overnight, and I think his name was Tom. He led off that morning with some good strong gobbling, and I really wanted to join him, but I just kept my mouth shut.
Several times I would have to grab my beak with my toes to keep from blurting out a gobble. I could hear hens all down in the woods, and I started to beat Tom down to them, but I decided to wait.
It wasn’t long until I heard Tom gobbling on the ground, and the hens seemed to be really excited, but then a loud blast ended it all. Tom was never heard from again, and I further learned the value of patience.
That spring found me slipping around through the woods really quietly, and I saw things that I could write a book about. Often a human would just materialize out of nowhere, and just minutes before a hen had been calling from that same place. I would then watch some of them go a little ways and pick up what looked like a turkey. They would fold it up and stick it in a bag and walk off. I learned to not believe what you heard or what you saw.
I did find hens that year, in fact more than I could handle. As the humans would kill some of the males, the females would search for me. They could find me up in the middle of the day by my drumming. Very seldom did I ever gobble anymore. I did learn that humans, for the most part, only hunted for a short time in the mornings and you could just about always tell when they were there from that constant hooting.
That spring drifted into summer, and I ran into George again. He was proud to see that I had made it through my first breeding season. He told me that my chances of living to be as old as he were improving. I just had to learn when to keep my mouth shut.
I am now approaching my sixth breeding season, and George has been long gone. No, I am proud to say, a hunter never did get old George; he just went to sleep on the roost one night and never woke up. He was froze as solid as a rock the next morning. If I could only end it that way.
I have come to look forward to the spring breeding season, not only for the female companionship but also for the games I have learned to play with those dopey hunters. I love to gobble on the roost just enough to get the hunter to come in and call to me and continue to gobble just enough to keep him sitting there.
Often his calling becomes frantic, pleading to hurry up, but I don’t have anything else to do, so why hurry. I have come to believe that for every hunter I keep tied up with me, I am saving many other turkeys’ lives. Very often I will fly from tree to tree gobbling, making the hunters believe there are several different gobblers in the area. Then I will fly off to my strutting area and leave them sitting and calling while I’m taking care of business with my hens.
I love to slip in behind a hunter that is sitting against a big tree. You can get right up behind him, and he will never know you are there. One of my favorite games is to slip up behind him and gobble as loud as I can in his ear. This always scares the hunter real bad, and while he is trying to recover his wits, I fly out the back way. I usually smell a foul odor coming from that particular hunter as I fly away.
One of my favorite pastimes is to find a hunter’s vehicle and deposit a great big “J” of turkey dung on his windshield. This often breaks a hunter’s spirit, and you must be careful or he will become a fisherman.
I notice that I am getting a little stiffer and slower in the early mornings now. My gobbles aren’t what they used to be, but I just hope that I have one more fun-filled spring left in me. This will be my seventh, and I hope to send many hunters to the house dejected, frustrated and smelly.
I hope you understand a little better the life of the turkey.
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