Turkey Talk

I enjoyed a fascinating spring turkey season and never handled a gun.

Who needs one? Not me. Not now.

After many blissful decades of roaming through marsh, meadow, and high lonesome hardwood spines hunting fur, fish, and feathers, I’m now perfectly content as an elder observer. Whether touring the road on my daily daybreak rambles circling a neighborhood where wildlife sightings are common, or hiking a wooded trail, I stay alert to the sights and sounds of nature. I look. I listen. I evaluate. No need for a deafening roar and jarring recoil finale. To me, observation and analysis, stitched in introspection, is more than enough.

Take for example the recently-concluded, four-week, spring turkey season, during which I was thoroughly entertained by a gobbler I wasn’t hunting. That’s not surprising. Wild turkeys have fascinated me since they entered the local scene some six decades ago. Though younger folks accustomed to often seeing turkeys may find it difficult to fathom, I remember a day not long ago when there were none.

Hard to imagine, huh? But true.

Around 1960, when I was a boy, the turkey situation in my world was about to change. First, New York devised a plan that reintroduced turkeys to the Hudson Valley by capturing surplus Pennsylvania birds for release there. The initiative worked to perfection and set into motion a string of events that ultimately re-established a thriving, sustainable turkey population in New England as well.

As New York’s turkey population grew and expanded, birds started crossing into southwestern Vermont, where state wildlife biologists wanted more. To meet that goal, Vermont forged a trap-and-release agreement with New York that paid immediate dividends. Then, with turkey populations rapidly spreading along our borders with New York and Vermont, birds inevitably started appearing in western Massachusetts habitat in Berkshire and northwestern Franklin counties – including border towns like Leyden, Colrain, Heath, and Rowe.

Enter bespectacled, professorial MassWildlife biologist Jim Cardoza, who in 1969 became Massachusetts’ first Turkey Project Leader. I got to know Cardoza well. We often discussed turkey-restoration on the phone or at events as he pulled the strings on his successful program, which has since the Seventies delivered us to our current status. The success story was a colorful feather in Cardoza’s fedora, opposite the one saluting his similarly successful reign as state Bear Project Leader.

By the time Cardoza retired in 2009, a state that had zero turkeys when he joined MassWildlife now had them interfering with city traffic.

When Massachusetts spring turkey hunting was reborn in the spring of 1980, precious few permits were issued by lottery, and hunting was limited to a small swath of western Massachusetts. Back then, permits were tough to get, and turkeys were hard to find. Not anymore. Now wild turkeys are everywhere, including neighborhoods like mine, where I’m never surprised when a hen scoots through the backyard.

Before becoming a turkey hunter I was a turkey-restoration chronicler. I kept readers apprised of new measures enacted under a gold-standard management scheme, including trap-and-release programs aimed at populating eastern Massachusetts counties all the way to the tip of Cape Cod’s final frontier. I also tracked and compared weekly and annual harvests along with writing many personal-interest stories for the local rag about turkey hunters. I still feel today like a beneficiary of the Cardoza team’s masterful plan, despite deciding about a decade ago to retire my camo and lock down my shotgun.

I didn’t stop hunting because the thrill was gone. Honestly, there is nothing quite like the heart-pounding process of calling an amorous tom to the gun from its daybreak roost. It’s exhilarating. Exciting. Captivating. Many times I have articulated the experience to prospective hunters, informing them that if their blood doesn’t boil to a gobbling turkey closing in fast and loud, they have no pulse.

Yet for me, the kill was never the greatest satisfaction, and it got old. Why kill such a beautiful creature? My wife won’t eat wild fish, fowl, or game, and I ain’t hungry.

Nonetheless, I still enjoy observing turkeys and studying their seasonal patterns. I love to hear the coffee-shop chatter about a dozen longbeards in one winter flock; or mixed flocks exceeding 60 in number feeding through the deer woods; or big, dominant, springtime toms strutting their stuff for the ladies in someone’s backyard. It’s nature. It’s magical. I never tire of watching, listening, and learning.

Which brings us to a neighborhood boss gobbler that captured my fancy this spring – a garrulous tom that brightened the first leg of my daily daybreak romp around the neighborhood. That bird sounded off at the same time every day, rain or shine, warm or cold, windy or calm. He was boisterous in sounding off from various, overnight, sidehill roosts overlooking his fertile meadow and wetland mix.

The commotion began a good two weeks before the season opened on April 24 and continued non-stop through the final week. Like clockwork, he’d deliver his first muffled gobble soon after my sneakers hit the pavement, then many more before I got out of earshot.

He was consistent, for sure, but his distant calls were tough to pinpoint from the road. Too far. I could have easily solved that problem by cutting the distance in half with a pre-dawn walkthrough the meadow. Then I could have marked him, set up in a strategic spot, and called him to me if that was my goal. It wasn’t. I was content just listening – an art that ripens with age.

I had been listening to that bird’s throaty daybreak gobbles for more than a week when a neighbor called to chat. Toward the end of our rambling conversation, he reported a sighting the previous evening of a gobbler for the ages, beard dangling to the ground, all puffed up and fanned out for a backyard harem of nine hens.

I told him I wasn’t surprised. I had been listening to that bird every morning for more than a week. I knew he was a good one, not to mention an easy target if I wanted to take him. He was, in my humble opinion, ripe for the picking.

His rambunctious gobbling continued right through the final week of the season, when it started to diminish. The mating season was winding down as hens tended nestsful of eggs. Finally, not a peep on the final day or since. Poor devil. With his favorite activity in the rearview, his harem was unavailable. Oh well. That’s life, Big Boy.

To this day, I have not laid eyes on that gobbler, but he taught me something. The lesson learned was that unfavorable weather doesn’t shut down dominant toms’ gobbling. Experience had told me that there was more noise from the roost on clear than cloudy mornings, especially following prolonged spring rain that tended in my experience to shut them down.

I always felt most confident as a hunter on the first clear morning following rain, figuring the toms would gobble their fool heads off to greet clear skies offering optimal range.

Now I know that’s not true – at least not for the boss gobbler I monitored this spring. It surprised me to hear him gobble a couple of times the morning I got caught in a sudden downpour that drenched me to the bone. Even on that stormy morning, with big, heavy, saturating drops pouring down, he was determined to establish his presence.

It surprised me. During my hunting days, I had low expectations in rainy weather. In fact, I recall many silent mornings in wet woods – even when I was doing everything in my power to initiate a gobble with a variety of owl hoots, crow calls, and plaintive hen yelps and clucks. Even desperate fly-down cackles couldn’t get a response.

Back then, my rule of thumb was to stay home in rainy weather and be there on the first clear morning when lustful gobbles would fill the air with or without my inducements. Given what I witnessed this spring, I’d tweak my strategy a tad if I was still hunting. Wet weather would not present discouragement. I now understand that, when hunting a king of the mountain like the bird I encountered this spring, he’ll gobble in a hurricane.

It took me a long time to figure that out. Too long. Stern old schoolmarm Sentience finally set me straight.

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