The Eastern Wild Turkey

Capable of outwitting the most experienced of hunters

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Photography by Corbet Deary

As Thanksgiving nears, many of us are looking forward to a feast unsurpassed. The sides will vary, but the main dish will remain the same in many households.

That’s right — most Thanksgiving dinners will revolve around turkey. Some will be baked, while others are deep fried. But regardless of how you cut it, the result will be the same — a tasty meat that has proved the mainstay of this particular holiday for many years.

In fact, I suspect this bulky, heavy-breasted bird has proved the entree of choice for 152 years, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Interestingly, the holiday originally fell a week earlier. But President Franklin Roosevelt opted to reschedule it one year after it came to fruition.

So, exactly how did this bird gain national recognition? Unfortunately, I can’t accurately answer that question, as there are several speculations how it came to be. I can, however, say that the turkey was revered by at least one icon of American history.

Benjamin Franklin suggested the turkey be our national bird. In a letter he wrote to his daughter, he said the turkey is a “much more respectable bird” than a bald eagle, and “withal a true original native of America.” But despite his sentiments, the bald eagle was chosen.

What was it that Franklin found so intriguing about turkeys? Those of us who have hunted this bird have likely experienced scenarios that have also left us believing they are worthy of national recognition.

Anybody who has spent many days pursuing springtime gobblers has left the woods certain that they are one of the smartest creatures roaming our forest, and rightfully so. Despite hours of preparation and scouting, it often seems that our efforts went in vain.turkey2

The preseason scouting usually goes something like this: you crawl out of the sack long before daylight. From atop a hill you quietly stare into the darkness, waiting for that magical sound cutting through the morning air.

Then it happens. A shock gobble follows the hoot of a nearby barred owl. And with every hoot, the gobbler makes his presence known. It’s like clockwork. Every morning, he’s perched on the same hillside, in the same clump of towering pines. And he never fails to answer the boisterous call of the owl.

This is going to be a cinch, right? Slip into the woods undetected long before daylight on the opening morning. Set up in close proximity to the bird. As soon as he pitches to the ground, a couple of seductive yelps should be all it takes. Hearing an unfamiliar hen, he’ll come running.

Not hardly. In fact, this tom seems to have more tricks up his sleeve than Carter has liver pills. It might be a sudden willingness to remain silent while on the roost. And even if vocal in the tree, he might just choose to grow tight-lipped immediately upon hitting the ground.

And even if this wary bird does hit the ground talking, that’s no indication he’ll be easily swayed. And even if he does choose to cautiously mosey in the hunter’s direction, many potential obstacles lurk along the way.

Nothing more than a dim logging road or creek can sometimes be the culprit. One would think that he would barrel across these as if they were nothing. And they obviously could, if they wanted to.

turkey3But no. It’s not uncommon for them to gobble their heads off while traipsing up and down the road or creek’s edge, as if they knew of the potential danger lurking on the opposing side.

And then there’s this one particular law of nature. Generally speaking, gobblers are accustomed to calling their harem of hens to their location. So to entice a tom into going against the grain can sometimes prove a challenge within itself.

Speaking of hens, that can make things even more complicated. If a group of hens pitch off the roost and quickly assemble with the male, one will be hard-pressed to convince him to leave them behind in search of a potential mate.

But then there are those days that pretty much assure us that turkeys are not as intelligent as they are a cautious species. With patience and persistence, the hunter will eventually come home with the bird that couldn’t be coaxed within range.

Despite sometimes leaving their human adversaries disgruntled, the eastern turkey has always beckoned Arkansas’ hunters by the droves. And I would suspect the woods will once again be filled with anticipation when the upcoming winter bids farewell and we are greeted with yet another spring.

The numbers of successful hunters will likely be large. But for the remainder of us, let’s just feel fortunate we can purchase these proverbial intellects from the store.

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