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TurkeysThe Outing Magazine
When the creatures of the wild were named, the wild turkey should have been christened Wise Turkey. The big bird is by nature sociable and if, at times, he seems distrustful of human beings, it is because he is quick to recognize a hostile purpose.
The Indian hunter compared his perception with that of the wary deer, to the advantage of the bird.
"Deer look up, see Injun, say: 'Maybe Injun, maybe stump '; turkey look up, see Injun, say: ' Maybe Injun,' then run away quick." When, in the wilderness, I fired a gun which I had loaded for turkey, every chick of the family within a mile took to the tall timber. When, in that same wilderness, three years of observation had shown them that the gun was fixed for crows, the wild turkeys paid no attention to its discharge, even when it was fired within twenty feet of a brood of them, or when a dying crow fell beside them.
In many states where these birds once flourished, they may now be classed with the dodo. The one place, within my observation, where their number has decreased but little, in the last two decades, is the country of the Big Cypress Swamp in Florida. Here their environment protects them. In the dry season the turkeys scatter over the open prairies where they are not easily approached. When these are covered with water that rises to the hunter's knees, above fathomless mud in which he might disappear entirely, they gather in the thick woods of the hummocks.
On one of these almost unapproachable oases is a recently established grapefruit plantation. The owner of these three hundred acres has forbidden the killing of turkeys on his grounds. The Indians, who often visit his place, scrupulously respect the prohibition; white hunters don't poach on the domain, because of its inaccessibility and the certainty of detection; while the negroes, who work in that isolated field, prefer not to incur the twenty-five dollar penalty, the sure enforcement of which means involuntary servitude for an indefinite period.
The plantation is a sanctuary for negroes to whom its seclusion is advantageous while its white employees are either lonesome–proof or constitutional wonders. One day, as I rested on a log, watching a flock of turkeys which was strolling fearlessly about a lot of laborers, the boss of the gang, a weazened old man with an unfamiliar face, sat down beside me. We talked of the plantation, its history and its prospects, work and its workmen, and then, as a bunch of turkeys came near us I remarked: "It would be wicked to kill wild birds that are as friendly as those."
"Most as bad as shootin' turkeys from their roost at Skeleton Creek?" he asked.
I nearly fell off the log. A full generation had passed since I had hunted and camped with this man on the Indian-infested, buffalo-covered prairies of the Indian Territory. He had reminded me of a day when I had vainly tried to stalk some wild turkeys on the prairie and of a night when he had led me under the trees where the turkeys roosted and in sheer desperation and weariness of spirit I had shot a few out of a tree that was filled with them.
On the plantation, groups of young gobblers and hen turkeys with their broods walk freely and fearlessly among the workmen and they have often come within reach of my hand as, in the shade of a water oak, I sat idly on a stomp. Yet they kept wary eyes upon the suspicious character who neither slung an ax nor grubbed with a mattock, and were more distrustful of a slight motion of my hand than of a shovelful of soil thrown beside them by a laborer. They responded promptly to the call of a tree felled by the workmen, to seek the insect life to be found in its upper branches.
Though, at first, the turkeys turned inquiring eyes upon the camera when the shutter clicked, it soon ceased to interest them, but when they observed that the unobtrusive steps of the Camera-man happened always to follow their own, they became suspicious and he had to suspend his pursuit for the day. Sometimes, when the turkeys seemed especially sociable, I sought to secure their confidence by scattering handfuls of grain among their own, but they feared the giftbearing Greek, and I only succeeded in implanting distrust, by actions which their inherited experience had taught them were of evil portent. Although the Camera-man spent much time trying to photograph turkeys on the wing, he couldn't run fast enough to make them fly. They always managed to keep ahead of him until they could plunge into the dank recesses of a cypress swamp which ended the chase.
Work on the plantation began but a few years ago and even now it is only partially cleared, yet generations of wild turkeys have known it as a sanctuary and within its boundaries exhibit changed natures. I hobnobbed one morning with a hen turkey and her brood and later saw them wander out on the prairie away from the plantation. On the following day I saw them again, several miles from their hummock homestead and was able o identify them with reasonable certainty. But their natures had reverted to type and they were typical wild turkeys, not to be approached within gunshot.
When conditions of food and dryness on the prairie invited the turkeys, they left the plantation, group by group, and brood by brood, until it was almost barren of turkey life, but the first storm that flooded the prairies drove them home again, singly and in flocks. On the prairies they were wary as the wildest of their species. In the plantation they became tame as barn-yard fowl. Sometimes a hen of the hummock hatched a brood elsewhere and brought her half-grown chicks to the old home, where it took her long days to educate them out of their wildness. Occasionally strange wild turkeys followed a home-coming flock and made their first visit to the plantation when fully grown. Day by day their distrust grew less and in a few weeks the immigants couldn't be distinguished from the well-behaved native born.
The tourist-sportsman seldom penetrates the haunts of the wild turkey in the Big Cypress country. The habitat of these birds is surrounded by moats, sentineled and guarded by fierce wards. The eye of the hunter as he walks should be keen to distinguish the ugly, coiled cottonmouth from the mud of the trail which it closely resembles. His feet must be nimble to avoid the only less dangerous little speckled-bellied moccasins that swarm in his path, and his ear quick to catch the locust-like warnings of deadly rattlesnakes that lurk in the grass. Even the few dwellers on the borders of the Big Cypress have a wholesome dread of these reptiles, which is highly protective of the game of the country.
Most of the turkeys that are killed here are shot by alligator hunters for food. The vocation of these men carries them into the very home of the reptiles and accustoms them to ignore a danger which they yet never belittle.
Sometimes a hunter drags a torch of palmetto fans across the wind, through the grass of a prairie until it is swept by a wall of roaring flame, half a mile in width. Turkeys are unharmed; deer are even attracted by the ashes; but snakes perish by the thousand in the flames. A guide of my own was bitten by a rattlesnake while we were hunting for turkeys in the Big Cypress and although my companion, who was beside him, at once sucked the venom from the wound, the victim came near passing over the divide and it was weeks before he recovered.
The born hunter, who walks without stepping on anything, passes through thickets without touching a bush, and spots every leaf that stirs within a hundred yards, can usually pick up a turkey for supper within an hour's walk in the woods or on the prairie. It takes the sportsman longer. In former years I hunted them and have spent days vainly approaching birds that played hide and seek with me, but always kept just out of range. When I sought them by moonlight in their roosts I got them, but when I played fair they outwitted me. On the few occasions when I have successfully stalked a wild turkey there has usually been reason to suspect that the bird I bagged was not the bird I was pursuing.
One morning while in camp in the Royal Palm Hummock I heard the gobbling of a turkey which I could definitely locate in a dense thicket about three hundred yards distant. Leaving the camp, with my rifle, I told my companion that I would bring home that turkey for dinner. I then spent an hour in stealthily approaching the place from which came, every few minutes, the gobbling of the creature which I couldn't see. Before I reached the thicket the sound had ceased, but, later, was renewed from a clump of trees a quarter of a mile beyond. Again I skulked and crept until I reached the clump from which the gobbling had seemed to come, when I saw the turkey enter a mangrove swamp several hundred yards from me.
It was quite useless to go farther, but the spirit of the chase obsessed me and I plunged into the tangle of mangrove, from which I emerged some hours later mud-bedraggled and worn out, body and spirit. I leaned, disheartened, against a fallen tree. For half an hour I rested for the coming interminable tramp back to camp and the humiliating arrival, empty-handed, when suddenly my turkey, or another, loomed up before my eyes. He was within twenty-five yards and looked bigger than an ostrich.
I did not dare to breathe until he turned away from me and lowered his head. Then I cautiously laid my hand on the rifle beside me and slowly turning it drew a bead on the middle of the big body of the turkey. Of course at that short range I ought to have shot off his head, but I might have missed and had to carry to camp an excuse instead of a turkey, while a shot through the body could be accounted for by the substitution of rods for yards in the story at the camp-fire. Thirst and fatigue were forgotten as I picked up the big bird and prepared to return to the camp. It then occurred to me that I didn't know where the camp was. I was troubled until I thought of the royal palms beside it, which lifted their splendid heads to twice the height of the surrounding forest. The towering tops of these grand old trees were never more pleasing to me than when I caught sight of them from a tree which I then climbed.
As I neared the camp I heard signal shots from my companion, to which I replied, finding him, on my arrival, much perturbed because of my long absence, coupled with his knowledge of how easy it was to get lost in a Florida swamp and how unpleasant after it had happened. That experience has come twice to me and in both instances I was led astray by wild turkeys. I think that if a balance could be struck it would be found that turkeys have had quite as much fun with me as I have had with them. But at least they have taught me that the best way for the ordinary sportsmen to get wild turkeys is to let them hunt him.
Of course the place in which he hides must be chosen with judgment. The edge of a prairie, a clump of trees, and just before sunset make a good combination. I have often had good luck while sitting quietly in a skiff as it drifted down some little stream in a turkey region. Chance counts for a lot. I once cruised with a certain well-known naturalist whose constantly recurring, unearned good luck was of sinister significance. When he went fishing, because he was too lazy to hunt deer with me, I tramped all day and got nothing while he brought back a buck which swam out to his skiff and was caught with a landing net.
On another occasion, when we were out in a swamp hunting for turkeys, he became tired and stopped to rest and write under a wide-spreading live oak for the rest of the day while I continued to hunt. When I came back with a tale of several turkeys seen, but none bagged, my friend was still writing, and a fat gobbler hung to a branch of the tree beside him. It was doubtless one of the turkeys I had frightened which lit in the tree just over my friend and waited for him to lay aside his work, wipe his pen, and pick up his gun. The naturalist then resumed his writing and was in his usual philosophical frame of mind, when I returned covered with mud and full of cactus thorns.
There is a serious side to this subject, quite worthy of consideration. It would be a misfortune for this grand creature, perhaps the bird most closely associated with the progress of our race on this continent, to become extinct. Yet this has already happened in most of the States of the Union. If we are to continue to treat the turkey simply as a game bird, to ve protected only that it may be killed for sport, the finish of both turkey and fun is in sight.
Year by year, more of our people hunt with cameras and fewer with guns. Turkeys shot with a camera remain to fill the forests with interest, enliven the landscape, and perpetuate subjects of study and enjoyment for generations to come. There is yet time to save this beautiful bird to the people of this country.
The one and only way to accomplish this is to back up wise laws by an active public sentiment. And this work should begin right in the big cities. It is the city sportsman who carries the automatic weapon and works it to the limit, often regardless of local law and local sentiment. The dweller on the border of the wilderness, while often indifferent to the letter of the statute is apt to live up to the law as his community construes it.
I once asked a Florida hunter if game laws were ever kept in the Big Cypress.
"We boys keep 'em," he replied, "better 'n the fellows we guide." I never shoot game for fun, and I don't kill any deer or turkey when the law's on, unless I'm workin' in the woods and get hungry. If the sheriff wants to stop that he'll have to come and live with me."
Excerpt from Dimock, A.W., "Turkey Tracks in the Big Cypress" The Outing Magazine, 1909.
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