Tuesday, May 6, 2008
When we go out on these balmy soft spring mornings, it’s not long before the air is shattered by the explosive gobble of a wild turkey. Something about this call makes me laugh; it’s more like a sneezing fit than a song. Turkeys are doing well around here, despite coyotes and great horned owls, raccoons, opossums and free-roaming cats. They’re doing so well that wherever they appear, ruffed grouse seem to vanish. I’ve seen the changeover on our own land. Granted, I may not have the whole story; other factors such as a maturing forest could have more to do with grouse disappearance than does competition with turkeys. But if you think about it, turkeys and grouse eat essentially the same thing, but turkeys have a much higher reach for buds and seeds than do grouse. I don’t know. It’s a theory, like almost everything else in natural history.
I’d rather feed turkeys than hunt them; I’d rather watch them court than call them in to shoot them. I do have a certain admiration for anyone who can get close enough to a turkey in the woods to shoot it, though, because as a deer hunting friend once said, “Deer are deaf, dumb and blind compared to turkey.” Turkeys don’t miss much.
You have to go out before dawn and camo up and be still, and you have to be good with calls.
I was checking bluebird boxes along a country road near our house when I saw my pals, the Warren boys, in a red pickup ahead. Like turkeys, the Warren boys don’t miss much. They recognized my car in the their rear view mirror, pulled over and got out. Jeff pulled out his crow call and cawed to me. I cawed back. That’s how we make contact in Whipple. They were dressed in camouflage and grinning ear to ear. “Got a 20-pounder this morning,” Jeff drawled. “Ooh, can I see it?” I always like to see wild things up close, even if they’re dead.
“We put him in the cistern to keep him cool.” So we drove up to the barn and the Warren boys grunted a big slab of sandstone to the side, uncovering a magnificent shallow cistern half-full of water. Dangling just over the surface was the turkey, relieved of his innards. There was something spooky, mysterious and ooky, about the giant bird slowly twirling over the cold murky water.
They hauled him up and laid him on the grass for me to admire. Jeff showed me his short, straight spurs, suggesting that he was in his second spring. I showed the Warrens the brown vermiculation on his tertials, suggesting the same thing to me. We traded bits of information.
“Ever feel the beard?” Jay asked, and I was intrigued to find it just as stiff and tough as horsehair, stronger even, perhaps. The feathers are without barbules, black and wiry. Now it was my turn to tell them something. “Recent research suggests that the beard isn’t just decoration. It may be a sensory organ that helps the tom mate.”
Apparently, on dissection, ornithologists discovered that the bony pedicel, or base, of the beard was richly enervated. Now, why would a decorative bunch of bristles need a lot of nerve endings? I will tell you tomorrow. Tee hee hee.