The Canal Bird

Foreword

I have a story to tell, but I must preface it with a caveat. I do not consider myself a writer. I have a background in wildlife science, so the bulk of my writing has been fact-based reports regarding a species or data I’ve spent way too much time studying. That being said, I’m going to do my best to articulate what goes through my mind while I’m hunting. This story is my recollection of the most recent hunt I had. The main reason I want to share this story is because we, as hunters, are living in a pivotal time in history. We are living in a time when most of the world’s food is commercially farmed and the foundational practice of taking care of yourself and your own via hunting is frowned upon by a small, but loud, portion of the population. Hunters make up a small, but loud, portion of the population as well. Once you take away the hunters and those adamantly against hunting, it leaves us with about 60-80% (depending on whose study you look at) indifferent about hunting. This is my attempt to catch some of the indifferent people’s attention and give them a chance to read through a hunt. I don’t write this in hopes of converting a non-hunter or anti-hunter into a hunter. I only want those individuals to know the mentality and emotion behind this hunter. There are plenty of publications, peer-reviewed and popular literature, that explain why hunting is one of the most important wildlife conservation tools. That is an indisputable fact, but literature expressing the personal importance of hunting for an individual is far less prevalent. A final caveat I’ll give is that I have dedicated my life to wildlife science and conservation. It is embedded so deeply in me that there is no distinction between who I am at work and who I am while hunting. Therefore, my observations and connections with what I experience while hunting is likely different from what most hunters experience, so I do not speak on behalf of all hunters. The video of this hunt will eventually be published on youtube as the first episode of the Pinhoti Project, so consider this the book before the movie.

The Canal Bird

After driving 10 hours, living off wheat thins, fruit cups, and jerky, we tried to sleep another hour in the truck before it was time to get out and do what we’d come to South Florida to do: hunt an Osceola wild turkey. My body didn’t allow sleep to come because I couldn’t quit playing out in my mind how the hunt might go. Finally, the time came. I threw on my turkey vest, grabbed the gun and out I went. My boyfriend, Dave, was on this trip, but when it comes to hunting instead of a couple we are more of a team trying to accomplish the same goal. We struck out down what we called a road, but most would referto as a dirt path, under an almost full moon and a sky illuminated with stars. On an early morning like this, headlamps were not only not necessary, but were more of a hindrance when searching for our quarry’s sign. Maybe half a mile up the road, we began to see three-toed tracks in the road, followed by more three-toed tracks with a thin line on each side of them marking where a gobbler dragged his wings while strutting in front of who we can only guess to be the most perfect wild turkey hen to ever grace his presence. We stopped briefly to acknowledge the sign and debated whether we were making a mistake walking further to hunt an area that had produced success in the past. We decided to gamble on the latter and pressed on.

As we walked the road in the well-lit darkness, the only sounds were our footsteps, the occasional frog and owl, and the wind. There were walls of vegetation on both sides so dense that the wildlife who call this area home could’ve been an arm’s reach through it and been unbeknownst to us. I will admit that I am afraid of the dark, so despite how bright it was, I couldn’t help but look behind me every once in a while to make sure we weren’t being followed. We continued about a mile down the road before a faint glow began to delineate the horizon. With the glow followed a song. It started with a soloist and within 5 minutes there was a chorus. I consider my professional focus to be on birds. I studied sandhill cranes for my master’s project and currently work as a biologist over a complex of wildlife management areas and refuges devoted to waterfowl conservation, but I am no expert when it comes to songbirds. I could maybe name a few that partook in that morning’s hymn, but by the time the sun peeked, the song was so deafening I couldn’t differentiate where one bird ended and another began. We took a minute to take it all in and felt obligated to thank God for it, so we did.

At this point we had covered some ground, but had not heard a turkey and had seen no sign other than what we passed up an hour before. We kept walking until we heard our first crow of the morning and that stopped us in our tracks. A fun fact people reading this may not know is wild turkeys do not only gobble when they are communicating with each other. Particularly first thing in the morning, they will gobble at anything that takes them by surprise. This act is called “shock gobbling.” It’s comparable to the mini heart attack you experience when your alarm goes off in the morning. Some of the more notable species that can warrant a shock gobble from a male turkey include owls, crows, pileated woodpeckers, and coyotes. Because of this, many turkey hunters mimic these animals right at day break to get a turkey to gobble, consequentially exposing the bird’s location prior to them flying down from their roost trees and giving the hunter a slight advantage. Up until that point in the hunt, none of the owls we heard had struck a gobble, so stopping to listen when the crow sounded was a hopeful attempt at hearing our first gobble. Nothing but more crows sounded, so we continued on our way.

A few minutes later came the official sunrise and with it came what we thought was a gobble. We did not hear anything that would have elicited the gobble, so we could only assume that if it was a turkey, he may already have a hen with him. Having a hen already wouldn’t necessarily mean he wouldn’t be interested in us, but it did mean we may need to prepare a different dialogue and camouflage ourselves well enough to deceive two sets of eyes to finish the drill. We discussed which direction we thought the possible gobble may have come from and were interrupted by crows again, who despite their best efforts to expose our location, confirmed the gobbler. We speculated where he was and the distance we could close between us and him without spooking him. We began hastily walking towards him, well concealed by the thick vegetation that now encroached the road making it more of a narrow foot path. We closed the gap considerably within a few minutes. We slowed down as we approached an opening at the end of the path because we hadn’t heard from the gobbler since we started walking last and didn’t know how close we were to him. Just as we were about to start calling to the gobbler to get an idea of where we needed to set up, four crows dive bombed us. I have spent a considerable amount of time around crows in my life, but the crows in south Florida are the boldest I’ve encountered. As we jumped out of our skin from the loud cawing, the gobbler announced his coordinates. We moved past the crows, who perched in the trees above us seemingly as excited spectators, and got set up in the edge of the opening.

The opening was an old, dried creek bed that ran into a canal. In the middle of the creek bed was desiccated substrate with very little vegetation that transitioned outward into early successional plants with a small path cut through. From the path, the vegetation grew into grasses speckled with palmettos and then meshed into the tree line from which we just came. We pulled up our face masks and sat amongst some grass next to a palmetto facing toward the small path. The gobbler, who did in fact have a hen with him to whom he was gobbling incessantly, was going to travel the path of least resistance. In this case, the path of least resistance was either the path or the dry creek bed right past it. Either way, we were ready. Once we got situated, Dave with camera, I with the gun, he began to call to the gobbler. The calling began with some yelping. The gobbler responded and so did his hen. They seemed to be about 150 yards away. Dave’s calling transitioned to yelping with interspersed cutting. The hen responded to the cutting briefly, but she grew annoyed with the competition and soon fell silent. The gobbler continued to respond, gobbling each time a little louder than the last. We still could not see him due to the grass and topography change, but we knew he was closer because of the gobble intensity and it being accompanied by a new sound: drumming.

There is no word that describes the sound of an action more accurately than “drumming” does for a wild turkey. I thought I had heard drumming before, but could not confirm because it never shook me like it was right then. The gobbler was drumming with so much force that I felt it in my chest. The sound reminded me of the drums in the introduction of the ‘90s Disney movie, “Pocahontas,” and like those drums, it was a premonition of the impending challenge. This made me smile and loosen up briefly. In hindsight, I had been sitting still for quite some time waiting for him, anticipation building with every affirmation of his arrival, so the pounding in my chest had to be my heart racing. Whether it was his drumming, my heart, or a combination of the two, I felt alive and like I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. I wasn’t at work. I wasn’t at home being lazy. I wasn’t filling some societal obligation. I wasn’t having to suppress any instincts that some say we shouldn’t have anymore because we “have evolved past needing them.” I was alive and I crave that feeling every day, even as I write this.

The drumming continued another minute behind the curtain of grass, but then he took the stage. I did not have a clear view of him through the grass, but I saw his fan first. It was dark, almost black from where I was sitting. I clicked the safety off my gun. He took another step which allowed me to see his head. It was a bright, but lighter, blue. The contrast of his blue head against that dark fan backdrop was stunning. I could easily see why the hen he was with just minutes before was so smitten. We watched him for a minute mesmerized as he drummed, spit, spun, and practically performed in front of us. I wrestled with him being my prey and him being a work of art. As I endured my internal turmoil, Dave whispered, “let me know when you want me to raise his head.” I whispered back, “okay, but not yet.” The gobbler was well in range of my gun and I could see him well enough to have likely taken a successful shot, but I wasn’t ready for him to leave. I wanted to savor the moment just a little more. I watched another few seconds before he made a final spin into the clearest possible shot I would have. Despite my desire to continue watching his performance, I respected him too much to let him continue. He deserved to encounter me at my best and a clean finish. I gave Dave the go ahead, took a breath in, and steadied my sight where it belonged. Dave sounded a quick yelp and cluck. I breathed out and squeezed the trigger as the bird extended his head and gobbled his last. The gun went off and the bird fell behind the grass. I exclaimed, “YES!” and jumped up to go see him firsthand through relieved and excited, tear-welled eyes.

The internal struggle I experienced moments before was over. My decision was made. He was perfect. In the early morning South Florida sun, his iridescent feathers were striking. His head was just as blue as it was through the grass. I briefly described my awestruck feelings to Dave, summarizing them with, “you would think I’ve never done this before.” We took a minute to walk back his steps, seeing where he spun and dragged his wings. There his story was written right there in the sandy soil. I picked him up and breathed him in. That familiar smell of dirt and swamp water brought a smile to my face. I had missed it. I took him to a shady area back in the tree line where we hung him up and sat for an hour admiring him and trying to verbally express our thoughts and emotions. That hour after the hunt was so critical. I was profoundly afflicted. I needed that time to recover and to properly pay respects to such a worthy specimen. To have simply thrown him over my shoulder and walked him back to the truck right after his demise, after the pursuit, the conversation, the dance, would have been sacrilege. I promise you, my heart couldn’t take it.

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