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Archive for the ‘birds’ Category

Grandpa’s Bird

aududbon wild turkeyIf you were to travel the back roads along the wild border between Calhoun and Gilmer Counties and mention my name to some well-worn local, you would probably get “You mean that guy who kills all the turkeys?”

I am Scottie V. Westfall III.  Junior is my father. The elder has passed on.

I have never killed a turkey, though I’ve certainly seen the birds slinking along on gray November days, the sort of days when you hope against all hope that a white-horned stag might come slinking out of the thickets and into rifle range.   When the bipedal fantails come trudging out of the gray gloom, I’ve been sorely tempted, but I’ve held my fire.

Not in season. Let them be.

My grandpa killed 8 turkeys in one season. The limit is 2.

He saw them as the Holy Grail of wild game.  He made his own calls and spent hours scouting and “chumming” them.  “Chumming,” of course, meant the copious dropping the “yellow call” in the March woods,  and “yellow call” was cracked corn. Baiting turkeys was illegal as taking more than the yearly bag limit.

He and often argued over conservation issues, but he liked playing the scofflaw, a sort twentieth century version of the old European poacher who loved to flaunt the king’s edicts about the king’s game.

Turkey hunts in spring begin before the sun rises.  The birds start moving and then start courting once there is just enough light to see, and the big tom birds drop from their treetop roosts and go about the business of fighting and fanning before the often reluctant hens.

The trick is to hit the woods before the birds come down and begin the process of “talking turkey.”  The talk a man gives the tom bird is supposed to be that of a dopey but receptive hen that is looking for a male company but just can’t make her way toward him.

If a tom is “henned up” with plenty of female company, he’s not likely to leave them to look for the yelping idiot on a distant ridge. He’s going to be content to stay with his harem and fan and puff  up for them.

The best hunters have strategies for the birds, but the very best– the ones who shoot 8 birds in a season– use the yellow call. They risk the game warden’s fines, but if he really wants the bird, it’s a risk that some will take.

Before there was ever a turkey season, my grandpa set out a bunch of game-farmed Eastern wild turkeys in the back country. The dumb things were too tame to be sporting birds, so he took to harassing and harrying with sticks.

And they soon learned to fear man, and they thrived in the backwoods.  When their numbers were high enough, my grandpa opened his own season and shot a tom.  He was totally flaunting the North American model of wildlife conservation. He’d set out private birds on private land, and now he was opening his own private season.

I can’t say that I approve of such things. I’m more or less in love with public wildlife model that has served our game species so well. I don’t hate conservation laws, which are mostly based upon the most rigorous science available.

But a few days ago, I saw a few big toms out fanning in a pasture. The greenness of the new April grass painted a pastel promenade ground, and the bird’s iridescent feathers were shining in the April sun.

I saw in them the beauty that had so beguiled my grandfather. They drove him into the scofflaw world of sniping turkeys with a .243.  They were what led him the regular haunts in the March woods with buckets of yellow call.

“You gobble. You die,” said the vanity plate on my his Ford pickup.

And for the turkeys he took, it certainly meant death.

But in their gobbling, he truly lived. He was a wild beast of the woods as his ancestors were, hunting hard the wild game without any regard for such artificial abstractions as law and conservation science.  It is the way that our kind lived for much of our 200,000 year existence. It is a way that has brought down many species, including the passenger pigeons which used to fill the skies on warm spring days.

The pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, more than 19 years before my grandfather was born. They died off as the wild turkey nearly did. We just couldn’t stop killing them.

The turkey was saved, though, and is doing well.  And the bag limits and seasons get more liberal every year.

I think of my grandpa when I see these birds on clear April days. I know that he would be out there questing for them, yearning for them, coaxing them, ready to harvest as a wild hunting man should.

And I can only come up short. I’m an ersatz hunter-gatherer, wet around the ears, domesticated by the post-industrial world.

Yet still seeking that essential wildness that lies in gray woods of my people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The task of crows

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Trigger warning:  Even if you love birds and half-way decent nature writing, alt right special snowflakes should not read the following text. It might harm your delusions of dominance, or at the very least, it might make you angry or sad.  We can’t have that.

I don’t know what caused the old barred owl that roosts deep in the white pine thicket to let out a single haunting scream. Perhaps the weather was ready to change, and before the snow falls, they let out their little eerie screams in the gray wood. It is an odd little ritual, but one I listen for when I know it might be snowing soon.

But it was a oddly mild day in early February, and no snow was forecast.  No rain either. Just the ugly winter sun casting its sallow glares on the gray woods.

I knew they would come, but they came more quickly than I imagined. Tiny black jets zoomed sharp across the hollows and ridges until at last they found their target in the pine woods. It was a murder of crows on a mission.

The owl had stupidly positioned herself on the bow of a dead quaking aspen, and she was now exposed for the aerial attacks of the corvids.

One would distract her with its loud cawing, while one of its compatriots would zip in and peck the owl on the head.

More crows kept coming until the pine thicket had about 20 of them, each screaming its curses as the predator as a few of the braver ones dived bombed her from behind.

After about thirty minutes, the owl took flight across great hollow beyond the pines, but every crow followed her gray form, harrying her as if she were some great pestilence on the land.

A barred owl is a beautiful animal. Its soft gray feathers are streaked down the breast with darker gray streaks, and the feathers that form the dishes on its head frame the darkest brown eyes of any owl in these woods.  To us, it is an impish creature with the eyes of a cocker spaniel.

To a crow, it is perhaps the greatest of all demons. During the day, the crow’s sharp eyes and keen intellect work in tandem with its more maneuverable wings to avoid the owl’s depredations.

But at night, when the crows roost in flocks in their favorite trees, the owl becomes a gray dragon of the night. She comes swooping in on soft wings and carries off the hapless crows before they ever know she is there.

The long nights of winter must the worst sort of hell for crows. Hour after hour they sit in darkness, sleeping or trying to sleep, and at any moment,the soft wing-beats of the gray dragon could come to cast some death among the canopy.

The crows’ remedy for this terror is to go on the offense.  They spend much of their days scouting for owls. If they spot a large owl of any species, they will begin the most aggressive cawing and harrying of it they can muster. They will dive bomb it from behind until the owl, which usually wants to spend its days sleeping, will fly off. If the owl finds another roost in roughly the same vicinity, the crows will begin the same crazed harrying.

I’ve seen crows spend hours doing this behavior. I have come to think of it is as the primary activity of crows. They might spend some time in the winter searching for food, but they are always up for a good war on owls.

A single crow would stand no chance against an owl, but crows are intensely social and remarkably intelligent birds. They work together to drive the owl from their hunting and foraging grounds. They surely must have some sense of solidarity that allows themselves to risk injury in confronting the gray dragon.

In this way, crows are not too different from us. Our species has a strong sense of solidarity. We once banded together to throw stones and sticks at the great cats and giant snakes that preyed upon us. Later, we did the same toward the great predators we encountered as we left Africa. We spent many long nights, hoping that a Machairodont or a leopard wouldn’t come sailing in on one of our band and carry him off as silently and swiftly as the owl does with the crow.  We may have spent our days looking for where such beasts made their lairs and then we may have spent lots of time driving them away from our encampments.

We’ve become good at fending off threats. We started with sticks and rocks. Then we made arrows and spears. Then we rudimentary firearms, and then graduated to machine guns and tanks. We made sophisticated cannons and then intercontinental ballistic missiles.

And now a handful of countries posses the ultimate weapons– ones that will destroy virtually all of humanity and all life if we ever use them.

Most of us have no reason to fear the predators of the night, but we still live in fear. Fear drives us into madness at times, for deep down in that massive brain of ours, there is still a terrified ape that knows that a leopard could be lurking somewhere.  Our hope is that the rational parts of that brain temper the scared simian.

Right now, I see us in madness. The frightened ape mindset has taken over enough of the polity in my country to allow an absolute madman to take over. He lies to everyone, promising the moon, the sun, and the stars, but what is worse is he lies to himself..

He was elected in part to drive out the “bad dudes” as he calls them. These “bad dudes” become “bad hombres” when talking about Latinos, but they mean much the same. He speaks of the foreigner, who either wants to engage in violent jihad against Americans or steal someone’s job. Or maybe sell drugs.

He ran as a crow who sees a lot of owls. The Muslims were an owl. The Latinos another owl. The media was an owl.  Foreigners in general were owls.

And now that he’s been in power just these few weeks, I think there is an owl, and that’s the president!

We need to be good crows and start cawing away.

We need to say boldly that there is an owl, and we’re not about to be taken in the night.

We must remember that as crows we can act together to stand up to an owl.

He is not our gray dragon in the night, but with his hand on the button, that gray dragon could become a mushroom cloud.

Our constitutional system, hewed from the green wood of England and transported and modified on this system, could be threatened by a man who sees the rule of law as an encumbrance to his obvious genius and popular appeal.

The gray dragon of the night could descend upon us in one crazed tantrum or with slight winnowing away of liberal democracy one tweet or executive order at a time.

But we cannot allow the gray dragon to come and take us.

This the crows know, and we must follow their lead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Turkey bunch

A big flock of wild turkeys (hens and this year’s poults) cam by the Moultrie 1100i.

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I believe these are mew gulls, and they had three chicks that wandered among the landscaping rocks and spruce trees at the lodge at Denali National Park.

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One of the best parts of my Alaska trip was a float down the Chilkat River on a raft. The Chilkat River is home to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, not far from the town of Haines. (Skagway is the nearest “big town.”)

It has the largest concentration of bald eagles of any place in the world. They are even more densely packed in winter, but in summer, they are thick. I bet we saw 25 eagles in the span of about two hours.

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Nest:

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Juvenile eagle:

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And if you don’t get the reference:

I also saw an arctic tern on the river. This is a bird I remember my grandma reading to me about, which flies from the antarctic to the arctic every year.  It has the longest migration of any bird, and unfortunately, I didn’t get a good photo of it.

But it was on my bucket list.

 

 

 

 

 

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She’s pretty well-hidden:

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On the nest, glowering

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I don’t know how strong her brooding instinct is. Pekins usually don’t have enough to hatch out their own ducklings, but she’s got a nest in a brush pile.

The father would be a Rouen drake, so the ducklings will be of many colors.

 

 

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