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The early bird

There’s a saying that “the early bird gets the worm!”. While that’s true, the same could be said for the early bass. Or we could say “the early turkey hunter gets the bird!”. But then again, so do drivers who cut certain people off at intersections or pull out in front of them. But that’s not the kind of bird I’m talking about here.

Monday morning marks the start of spring turkey season in Missouri. From sunup Monday until midday May 6 hunters will have ample chances to outwit, outplay and outlast two turkeys for the price of a spring turkey hunting permit. Most hunters have been visiting their favorite fields and wooded areas for weeks listening for gobbling and watching for birds, all while trying to sneak in and out without upsetting the natural ebb and flow of the spring turkey mating season.

You’d think that something with a body the size of a portable cooler, a head the size of a tube of caulk, and a brain the size of a marble wouldn’t be able to outsmart a relatively-educated grown man or woman. But anyone who’s spent much time in the woods has heard that sickening single “putt” when a hen spots a hunter and sounds the alarm letting all the big birds within 100 yards know that the jig is up. The score suddenly becomes “turkey 1, hunter 0”.

No wonder that great statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin campaigned to make the turkey the national bird. Sure eagles are majestic and have snowy white hair like Charlie Rich (the country singer known as “The Silver Fox” who recorded such hits as “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl”.) And sure, eagles can soar on wind thermals and build big nests on the faces of cliffs and in the tops of big trees. But turkeys can grow long beards and have “spurs”, although they don’t wear cowboy boots. And can you look at an eagle’s droppings and tell if it was a male of female? (Actually, I’m not sure if you can or not … but I know if you see a turkey dropping in the shape of a “J” you can bet it was left behind by a male bird”.)

It’s said the noble bird was the favored food of Native Americans. I wasn’t around then — although my kids think I was — so I can’t attest to the tastebuds of those who came before me. But I can attest that turkey is one of my favorite foods … especially cold turkey leftover sandwiches.

Most Missouri hunters know the story, but other folks would find it hard to believe that turkeys were nearly extinct in the state by the early 1900s. The newly-formed Missouri Department of Conservation took on turkey population restoration as one of their first projects. Within a couple decades they had reestablished an ample population of birds throughout much of the state.

Missouri’s turkey population seemed to peak in the late 1970s. Nowadays the numbers look to be waning slightly, seemingly not enough for alarm at this point though. The MDC and turkey hunters often disagree on what’s causing the diminishing numbers. The scientists and biologists say wet spring months are damaging egg production and hatching numbers. Veteran hunters often put the blame on the uncontrolled predator population. People don’t hunt coyotes and foxes for hides like they used to, and more urban sprawl has meant less farmers who traditionally wreaked havoc on predators to protect livestock. Whatever the cause for diminishing numbers, there’s still plenty of birds out there to give us a good spring season.

I spent Friday morning sitting on a ridge listening for turkeys as one last sampling before Monday’s opener. I can honestly say I’ve never had a bad morning sitting in the woods listening to turkeys call … especially when it’s a big gobbler answering back to my calls. If you choose to hunt this season be sure and take all the suggested safety precautions and “Be Safe” out there.

Doug Smith lives in an old house, drives an old truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, hunts and fishes often, and can be found on any given day wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat. ( … and would really like to enjoy some fried wild turkey breast in coming weeks.)

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