Dr. John Scanlon - March 2008


Turkey Hunting - What's the Allure?


Dr. John Scanlon

   Why do otherwise sensible adult human beings skulk about bug-infested woods early in the morning to pursue a bird whose domestic brethren can be purchased at any local supermarket? And they do this repeatedly, rising at an hour normal folks consider the middle of the night.
    Turkey hunters dress like bushes and sit on the damp spring ground for hours hoping to fool a wild gobbler. Sure, they get to see new fawns with their mothers, watch all sorts of wild birds, and witness incredible sunrises that transform woods and fields from deep purple to vivid green. But what is the great attraction that keeps turkey fanatics coming back all season each year for more frustration, insect bites and humility to match wits with a creature whose brain is the size of cocktail olive?
    On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, huntable numbers of wild turkeys are a fairly recent phenomenon. For the most part, they had been eliminated from Delmarva more than a century earlier. About 25 years ago, Eastern subspecies birds were trapped in mountainous Western Maryland and then transplanted locally. In a short time their numbers skyrocketed.
    Turkeys quickly learned to adapt to the flatter, wetter, but grain-filled and prolifically buggy Chesapeake region. Lots of uncut, weedy Conservation Reserve Program land gave them a leg up in breeding.
    Hens use tangled, untilled grassy areas safe from numerous predators, as well as forests, to build nests and sit on eggs. Ubiquitous predators include large birds of prey, with owls at the top of the list. Foxes, skunks, opossums, raccoons, feral cats and the recently arrived coyote readily eat eggs. Some will kill newly hatched poults. For the first three weeks after hatching, poults require insects for food. You can readily appreciate that reproductive habitat requirements can be readily met on the Eastern Shore.   Hence the turkey explosion.
    Turkey hunting is first and foremost a huge challenge. The wild turkey is arguably the most difficult of all forest game animals to harvest. They have incredibly keen eyesight, many times more acute than a human’s. They also have excellent hearing that can pinpoint the location of a hen, within feet, from a single call.
    Wild turkeys have little curiosity about strange sights or sounds. Unlike deer, which often remain motionless to sniff and focus on something unusual, a wild turkey just leaves. It has been said that if a turkey could smell, no one would ever shoot one.
    Modern turkey hunting has become an equipment rich sport. There are specialized leafy camouflage clothing, even woven ghillie suits, which can be made site-specific by inserting local foliage. Camouflage hat, face mask, gloves and boots complete the ensemble.
    Camo patterns are endless. Since a hunter must sit on the ground for long periods, portable low stools, butt pads, even back rests, are available. Hunting garments are usually sprayed with Permethrin before and at intervals during the season. This chemical effectively wards off ticks, chiggers and other nasty crawlers quite well.
    Then there is the turkey vest. This marvel of garment engineering has many, many pockets, straps and pouches front and back. Zippered pockets are crammed with an assortment of calls. The average hunter carries way too many. Good quality compact binoculars, cell phone, folding raingear, compass, several light sources, branch clippers, folding saw, collapsible decoys plus extra batteries are frequently carried. So are snacks, bottled water and toilet paper kept dry in a zip-lock bag.
    Delmarva is the “Mosquito Capital of America.” Many hunters carry a Thermacell, which promptly chases these blood suckers away. This very portable device allows the hunter to remain free from biting insects and the diseases they carry. Bug repellent is an absolute necessity too.
    Shotguns are almost always large bore. Most are completely camouflaged. Special, often expensive, choke tubes to constrict the shot pattern and improve the chance of getting a bird are essential. Budget busting shotgun shells, costing more than $3 apiece, are popular. Since shooting frequently takes place under low light conditions, illuminated open or low magnification scope sights are typically seated on the gun’s barrel. You can appreciate how the cost per pound of wild turkey meat can rise steeply. A  Butterball from the market would definitely be less expensive.
    Despite significant equipment costs and the frustratingly steep slope of turkey hunting’s learning curve, there is one overriding reason why chasing these big birds may become an obsession. When that big old Tom, in full strut, walks toward you gobbling like thunder, all those dollars, early hours and frustrations are forgotten. The hunter is awash in adrenaline. Breathing and heart rate accelerate. The mouth becomes dry. The roar of the gun punctuates the excitement. This is the allure of turkey hunting.