Lord Byron Had Something Going
she tells me with emphatic body language, one sick bird. She flutters to earth, quivering, her large eye fixed on me. "Follow me!" she urges with her flittering.
I know there are babies at my feet and, sure enough, they flee for the tall grass, long, unfledged wings held above their heads like awkward cheerleaders running onto a football field waving pompons. I laugh at them and leave the flustered family to reunite. It hasn't been such a bad morning after all.
About 35 years ago, I hunted wild turkeys for the first time. It was the second modern season and I was so excited I drove to the hunting area and slept in the back of a station wagon so I could get an early start.
I caught a terrible cold that made me whoop like a tugboat and heard nothing, no gobbler, no hens, just the rattle of my wheezing breathing.
How far we've come. I still call like a lovesick anhinga. I still don't shoot turkeys... But I hear them and see them everywhere. From a piddling handful of birds in 1965 to turkeys everywhere. It's not the birds' fault if I don't score; it's mine.
It is a tremendous wildlife success story. When the restoration program began, they estimated that Missouri would have huntable turkey populations in half the 114 counties. But all counties are open and most have excellent hunting. Everyone I know kills a gobbler except me. Many take a second legal bird. Thanksgiving dinner is no problem for most hunters. We have ham at our house.
Missouri's turkeys might have made it without the cooperation of landowners and the Conservation Department. But you never know. Landowners pledged to protect new stockings and did so with ferocious pride.
The Conservation Department painstakingly trapped birds in all kinds of weather, often terrible, to provide seed stock. Turkeys spread slowly, then more quickly, until they covered the state.
And 35-odd years later, I can sit on a ridgetop and hope that this time my call will start a fire too hot to ignore. It happens often enough to keep me going.
Even if I don't kill a bird, there are compensations. I can figure on walking into a roost at least once every season. I will call up at least one hen who will stand, head cocked, looking at me as if I were Mt. Rushmore and she were a tourist.
I can see woodcock mothers dithering about my threat and watch mated Canada geese flying overhead and listen to barred owls and whippoorwills yield to the cardinals and jays.
There is much to be said for not killing a turkey the first morning just after sunrise. Lack of success doesn't always translate into lack of success.
There are, after all, pleasures in the pathless woods. Maybe I'll write a poem about it.