I grew up out West, where camping was something done in tents, not an RV with electricity and a cable dish. Animals roamed the forests and neighbors hunted alongside of neighbor to put food on the table. I still do.
It came into sight, quickly and unexpectedly. A small road, leading up into the pines to a spot I planned to turkey hunt at first light. The Ozarks are full of turkeys and this public land, I'd been told, was as good a spot as any, being far enough away from the city and a good hike up steep terrain where a lot of people would not tred. I couldn't camp on it, but I could hunt on it. There was a nice little Super 8 nearby where I could spend the night, getting up before light to head out.
Turkey hunting, for me anyway, is a lot harder than whitetail hunting. With their eyesight it only takes a blink to have your quarry take off to the next county. On the plus side, their sense of smell wasn't as keen so I didn't have to spend as much time prepping my clothing or person with de-scented products and using a bottle of "Gee Your Hair Smells like Dirt!" shampoo.
Some believe the word turkey comes from a corruption of a Native American name for the bird; Actually, the name of the bird comes from the name of the country Turkey, by way of the colonial error when early English settlers mistakenly thought turkeys were a kind of guinea fowl, an African bird that English people used to import from Turkey. If Cliff Clavin from Cheers were here, he'd probably add " However, the Spanish name for turkey, guajolote, does come from the Nahuatl (Aztec) name huexolotl!"
Before the United States was settled, millions of turkeys roamed most of what is now 39 states, the big birds playing a key role in the physical and spiritual well being of our country’s early inhabitants.
Turkeys are also used as clan animals in some Native American cultures, with turkey feathers being used in the traditional regalia of many tribes, particularly the feathered cloaks of eastern Woodland tribes like the Wampanoag and the feather headdresses of southern tribes like the Tuscarora and Catawba. Only men of great courage and valor were permitted to wear headdresses like the Seneca gustoweh headdress, pictured above, made in 1890 in Ontario, Canada. It was made from turkey feathers, eagle feathers, silver, wampum beads, leather and wood, and is on display at the Smithsonian.
Although the Apache and Cheyenne reportedly would not eat the birds, they were a major food source for the American Indians, with their feathers used to make robes and fletching for hunting arrows. The the small wing bones themselves were used to craft a rudimentary call in which a Indian hunter could yelp through it to call another turkey into bow range.
But as settlers spread out west, clearing the land, millions of acres of trees dissolved away in cold Spring rains, the turkey's habitat changed and disappeared. More and more wagons jolted across the slow and shifting land as the wilderness watched them pass. Land across which there came now no thunder of Buffalo or cry of the turkey, but the long drawn out bellow of a train pushing further West.
Heavy market hunting in the late 1700's (gobblers bringing as much as a quarter at game markets) spelled doom for turkeys and by the mid 1800's, the bird have been virtually eliminated from half its original range and all that remained of those days of a Indian turkey call were small towns with Indian names.
As millions of acres cleared by pioneers began to regenerate into woodlands, visionary leaders began to enact conservation plans, laying the groundwork for the return of the American Turkey. Funded by sportsman's dollars during the last 75 years, state and federal wildlife agencies have spent millions on habitat improve and turkey transplant and trapping projects.
Over the past three decades, the National Wild Turkey Federation and its partners have chipped in with more than a quarter billion dollars to conserve more than 13 million acres of wildlife habitat. That's money that would not have come but for the sportsmen and women who hunt and support responsible conservation. Non game animals benefit as well, with hunter and fisherman's licenses (and Pittman Robertsen excise taxes on sporting equipment) benefiting many non-game species. Where does that all end up? Here. On the side of a mountain in the Ozarks, listening to the gobble of a turkey at dawn, the birds having been restored to roam 49 states.
There's a great misconception among people that don't hunt, that those that do, are bloodthirsty louts that care nothing for the land, and for the welfare of game, depleting it all to extinction if we could. Certainly there are rare individuals that meet that description, just as there are bad seeds among any activity or group. But the majority of hunters I know, understand that the many fees they pay for hunting go, for the most part, to good use, not squandered on pork and personal pet projects. With it, much of that land has retreated, back towards what it was when we were first here, before axe and saw echoed in the last lone gobble of the last lone witness. Game that was dwindling is surging, game that exists is healthy, the numbers culled enough to provide for those that hunt, while keeping the species strong.
It's money well spent and it draws me now, just as it drew the early hunters of this land, coming on wheeled transport, with bedding, food and drink, the keen hearted anticipation of the hunt. It's conservation from a hunter's perspective.
It's campfires and stories of old, told as the last of the days light is snared between earth and sky. It's the last clink of a glass and the the final rumbling of laughter that dies into snoring. It's the young hunters, dreaming dreams of the deity of flight. It's old hunters,waking early in a peaceful tent, with not enough days left to waste it all sleeping, laying beneath bedding that gets less and less warm as the years rolled away. It's the call of the American turkey in his instant of immortality, as gun barrels draw up, and the blood of that which marks us forever proclaims us forever one with the land.
It's conservation, of a life, of a land, of a way of life.
It's mornings listening to the song of the trees, wondering if the answer to my call will be gobbler or Jake. It's roads that are once again the ancient pathway of game and promise, leading up to reforested hills, the call of the American turkey somewhere up ahead.
- Brigid 2011