Posts Tagged ‘wild turkey’

Running into poults


I went out on a late June saunter with camera in hand. It is that time of year just as the gloriousness of high summer begins its slow slide into the muggy doldrums of the the dog days.  It is the time before the mowing machines and the hay tedders and bailers come and denude the meadows of their tall grass.

It is the time when rabbits run through the tall grass. Furry paws hiss through the weeds as they course away from my treading advance, and the stalks bend with each contact, making it seem as if the grass sways to the haunting of some apparition as it slinks between the Netherworld and here.

But on this day of tall grass and sunshine, the rabbits were all in their weedy forms. Being abroad in the sunlight is only going to expose a lagomorph to the watching eyes of red-tailed hawks, which sit with casting eyes on power-line poles and tall trees.  Any furry exposed furry movement will be sure to get a great buzzard’s attention, and down from the trees and the power-line poles will come the winged death.

All that was abroad in the sunlight on that day were little songbirds, like goldfinches and chipping sparrows, flitting above the tall grass like bits of animate confetti. Crows were calling from the early season apple trees, and I could hear the croaking of ravens on a distant ridge, where I knew a farmer had deposited the remains of three Angus cows had succumbed to a lightning strike the week before. I imagined that the ravens and turkey vultures came during the heat of the day and pecked away at their beef buffet, but when the night drew in, the coyotes and foxes came to get their piece. I knew the rank stinking of beef carcasses would likely draw out a bear or two, and perhaps one might be wandering through the woods and meadows while I was out with my camera.

I had all these thoughts going through my mind when I turned down an access road that cuts along the edge of the meadow and the big woods. The meadow’s highest point rises to my right before leveling out, and it was in that leveling place that I saw a small doe standing tawny and russet in her summer coat.  I readied my camera, but she was startled by my presence and bounded off into the forest before I could crack my shutter.

It was at that moment that I noticed something sky blue sky blue in the grass that was growing about half way up the that high point. The blue spot rose above the grass and revealed itself to be a wild turkey’s head. The sun cast a sheen upon the black feathers and the iridescent shine that appears on turkey plumage cast back to me the greens and violets that would be hidden if the sun were not shining so brightly upon her.

I knew from the size and shape that it was a hen turkey. She was svelte and trim, and I couldn’t see much of a “snood” protruding from her forehead.

And I knew instantly why she was there, and I knew I had come across a fine photo opportunity.  I had to play this right, because if I came in too quickly, I would mess it all up.

When the grass is tall, it is a paradise for grasshoppers.  Grasshoppers are little more than bits of protein with exoskeletons, and hen turkeys know this well.  They need to know this fact, not because they need lots and lots of protein to thrive, but because in midsummer, they have rapidly growing poults that need as much easily procured protein as possible.

So I knew that if I approached this turkey calmly, I might get a chance to photograph some wild turkey poults. They weren’t bears or coyotes, but they were pretty amazing.  I knew that by this time of year, the little wild turkeys would have already developed flight feathers, and if I spooked them, they would shoot out of the grass in all directions, heading skyward to the safety of the forest’s canopy.

So I came slowly. The turkey hen glowered at me. She lowered herself into the tall grass, hoping that I hadn’t seen her.  I took slow steps, but her dark eyes never left me.

Suddenly another turkey rose on stilt legs from the grass and ran hard for the woods. I had not seen her, but I now realized I had come onto a matriarchal band of turkeys. During the summer, related turkey hens will band together with all their poults, and they will work together to bring their charges into good foraging spots and protect them from predators. I knew that if there were poults, there would be many, and this was an opportunity that I hoped I didn’t mess up.

I made a few more steps to the turkeys. Two more hens rose from the grass and ran hard for the woods.  I stopped.  I had now seen four mature hens, which meant that the grass was probably full of poults.  Four hens with four clutches of offspring. It was almost too good to be true.

I made a few more steps.  The hen that had been staring at me the whole time suddenly took to the wing.


A half dozen small brown poults followed her skyward, but one stood around, exposing itself in the grass.


The photo is fuzzy, because it was the only photo I was able to take. As soon as the shutter clicked, the grass erupted in wing beats. Black-speckled brown poults shot out of the grass in all directions. I had too many targets, and in the fog of all this action, I got no photos of turkey poult shooting out of the grass.

I was disappointed, but I thought if I slinked along the treeline, I might find a poult or two that had taken refuge in a tree that abutted along the meadow. It was my only hope.

Or so I thought.

As I began my slinking approach, I heard a high-pitch cheeping sound from the grass behind me. I turned my head to see the tall grass swaying as something small moved along the bass of the grass-stalks. Before my mind could register that it was a poult, the little beast busted out of its hiding place. Instead of flying away from me, its little wings took it straight at me. It passed no more than six feet from head before it landed on a small hickory tree under which I was standing.

The camera was ready this time.


The poult stared down with me, perhaps wondering what it was. I couldn’t tell if it had fear in its eyes or curiosity. Perhaps both.


But I’m sure its main concern was the location of the rest of its band, especially its mother and aunties and their soft clucks and purrs.

It chirped away into the bush, and then realizing that it probably shouldn’t stay in that hickory tree, it took flight again.

It was there only a minute, but in that minute he revealed to me the beauty and elegance of wild youth.

And the camera was there to capture it, so I could share it with you.

Running into poults.  Soon to be jakes and jennys.  A little longer and they will be stately toms and hens. The bobcats and coyotes will stalk them all their days, as will the spring hunters with their yelping and clucking calls. The fall hunters will go gunning for them too.

And they will eat a belly-full of ticks and spiders and the acorns and the wild fruits as they go through their life course, clucking and fanning and digging in the leaf litter.







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My guess is this is a wild turkey hen trying to hide her poults in the tall grass. She probably had them out for a nice grasshopper hunt on a balmy June morning. but when she encountered me, she went renegade.

Unlike suburban wild turkeys, which appear clueless dumb, those from pressured populations behave with all the stealth of a well-trained and well-seasoned sniper. Any mistake and the shotguns will get you.

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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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Turkey bunch

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

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Seasonably appropriate


In most of the US, this is Thanksgiving week, but here in West Virginia, it’s deer season. I’ve seen only one deer in two days. I’m that bad a hunter, but I’ve seen more than a few turkeys.

Which is a more seasonably appropriate animal.

But this is deer season.



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If you didn’t know any better, you’d think some velociraptors were out stalking the mist.

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Some turkeys

Some Eastern wild turkey stride by on an autumn morning.


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