The Plumage Fascination

Posted on May 16, 2017

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“Occasionally in life, as we flow along, we are presented with ideas or opportunities that alter our lives immediately and dramatically-the resumption of an academic career, a sudden change in occupation, the pursuit of some lurking artistic interest, or a consuming love affair. Unexpectedly, something presents itself that we know is exactly the thing to do at that particular moment, and so we are willing to pay the price of setting all other interests and commitments aside. It is an instant priority that superimposes itself over all other things.”
– Joe Hutto, Illumination In The Flatwoods

I know this to be true first hand. Actually, I’ve had a few such changes during the various seasons of my life, which have ebbed and flowed offering new interests, hobbies, and even occupations. I do not believe these new-found interests came as a result of boredom, reinvention of myself, or even randomness; at least this has not been the case for me. They have been a natural rhythm of curiosity and fascination with a new subject at hand.

 

 

The wild turkey continues to be just such an unexpected interest and fascination in my life. I can still remember, with absolute clarity, the words my turkey mentor Bob Humphrey first uttered to me during my initial baby steps into the world of turkey hunting: “You will get absolutely hooked (hooks = spurs, no pun intended) onto turkeys once you start, and this will become as big a passion as whitetails.” Of course, I denied that this would ever happen to me. After all, it’s a bird that primarily walks around surviving with a brain the size of a walnut. How could it possibly compete with a deer? Little could I have realized back then how influential this winged, oft elusive game bird would become in my life.

 

Initial Primer

Turkeys came later in life for me primarily because my home State of Maine did not have any resident birds. In fact, I don’t believe they had any non-resident or alien turkeys either. It was not until the early 1970s that reintroduction of the bird began. It would not be until 1986 that the first spring turkey hunting season in Maine was held in York County. That year, 500 hunters carried permits, acquired through a lottery. That lottery – one I could never seem to win – continued until 2005 when, due an expanding population of birds, all 23,951 applicants received a permit.

 

 

Two years prior to finally having the chance to hunt in my own home State, I began my turkey hunting in Connecticut, where I flat out missed my first turkey with a shotgun. I think I was more disappointed for Bob, who had handily pulled that bird in with what seemed to me, a rank green horn, a great turkey vocabulary. It would not be until the following year in Vermont before I finally secured my first bird; he and his pal came in to a verbal sequence of ‘fighting purrs’. I, at the age of 46 and the excitement of a 10- year-old boy, had shot my first turkey. The following spring of 2005, again under Bob’s guidance and calling, I shot my first of many Maine turkeys; a Jake that was far more curious than his three buddies that he was trailing.

 

Fledgling No More

With the fire now kindled, it was time for me to stoke the flame and build on what I’d learned. And when you begin a turkey hunting career while in your mid-forties, you’d better make that learning curve a quick one. Sure, I messed up plenty, blowing opportunities and missing easy shots. In reality, I would say I found myself in the same position as the great Alabama Turkey man, Tom Kelly wrote of himself,

 

“At that time, I had killed about as many turkeys as would comfortably fit on a kitchen table. I was making mistakes I didn’t even know were mistakes, let alone those set pieces of incandescent stupidity the turkeys pointed out to me. I was as qualified to take another man turkey hunting as I was to perform brain surgery, and I admitted all this.”

With that being stated, I did find success and learned much about America’s big game bird, only not so much from the butt end of a 12 gauge during long vigils with my cheeks pressed upon the sod and back against an oak. Instead, it was kneeling behind a tripod looking through the long lens attached to a camera.

 

Springtime Romance

When you take a man’s passion to photograph nature and stich that together with a new-found fascination with turkeys, coupled with all the curiosity of a toddler looking for answers, you’ve got the makings to gain some in-depth understanding of the species and how it relates to the surroundings. I have often said that if you want to become a better deer hunter with consistent success, know and understand the animal. Well, the same wisdom holds true for any other species, including turkeys.

 

 

In my desire to capture images of seldom seen behaviors, I not only had a front row seat, but a very narrow lens to acquire insight and prove or disprove rumored behaviorisms with the bird. Through the use of a camera and my daily presence, albeit from a distance at first, I was granted passage into the turkey’s world and their experiences; the good, the bad and the sometimes ugly.

 

 

For the past eight years I have spent six-to-eight weeks prior to the annual hunt following these birds, capturing their movements, behaviors and every other aspect of their life. With all that time focused on turkeys, a wealth of information has been gleaned, questions have been answered, hypotheses have been formed; but some mysteries remain unsolved. However, as Hutto wrote,

If we are careful not to assign particularly human qualities to other species, then it is not inappropriate to identify our similarities and gain insight in this way. It is critical for the observer to maintain a position that affords a broad horizon, one that attempts to explain behavior in a light that is brighter than our own immediate experience. It is an exercise in overcoming our intellectual presumptions and, probably most important, our condescending human arrogance. Whether attempting to achieve understanding or an exotic culture of an unfamiliar species, a position of superiority is always a recipe for failure.

 

 

So with this in mind, along with a whole lot of boyish enthusiasm, my journey with the wild turkey had begun. My nearly daily association with a given flock and their tolerance to my presence, provided me chances to get closer and closer to my subject. Over time the turkeys began to accept my company as well as perhaps expect it. At times, it seemed the flock had all but adopted me as part of the group. However, like all wildlife, these birds definitely had a fright & flight distance; cross that imaginary line and they would be gone faster than they arrived.

 

 

Vocalizations, mannerisms, skirmishes, dominance, bullying; all behaviors that the bird has taught me while in their presence. I have learned to recognize certain sounds associated with a fourth-coming behavior, when the flock is about to break-up, why gobblers don’t gobble on some days, how far jennies will travel to establish their first nest and home territory, when nesting has begun and much, much more.

 

Ongoing Honeymoon

Regardless of how many days, hours, minutes, encounters, images – there are thousands of each – there remains a shroud of mystery around this great bird and many unanswered questions yet to be answered for me. All in all, Bob was right those many years ago with his assertion of the impact the turkey would make on my life. I can now safely say that, although the wild turkey may not have changed my life, it has most certainly changed my Springs.

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