Meleagris Gallopavo: The First Encounter

This morning I’m coming off the first three days of my Spring turkey season. So far, I’ve watched a herd of deer get absolutely terrified by my turkey decoy spinning in the wind (Wednesday), I’ve spooked the entire flock (yesterday), and then watched the turkeys come off their roost and do a bit of grazing, about 200 yards away from me (just this morning around 6:15). I’m giving myself points for at least getting to watch the birds this morning without scaring them off. Tomorrow morning, Matt will be going out with me. I have until next week Wednesday to bag a bird unless I want to purchase extra permits.

As I sat on a composting pile of leaves and clover straw this morning, one of the things I was thinking about (besides hot coffee and doughnuts) was my very first encounter with wild turkeys.

The first time I ever was aware turkeys could be wild and not just on the table at Thanksgiving was when I was little. I think I was maybe 6 or 7 or so, and we still had the wooded lot my parents owned, which I’ve described before. We were out there one Saturday in early Springtime, and both my parents were doing some clean up work.

This old picture is probably in the right age range for this story. Me and my kid sister Jo

This old picture is probably in the right age range for this story. Me and my kid sister Jo

 

What’s important to know here is that wild turkeys had been hunted out of Illinois in the early 1900s. The last wild turkey sighting in Illinois was 1910. The state began reintroduction projects in the 1950s, but that was mostly in the Shawnee National Forest, some 4 hours to the south of where I’m from. So, not even my dad had ever seen a wild turkey. Or probably even his dad. The last relative of mine whose name I have and who may have seen a wild turkey, or at least been around when they were still in Illinois is my great-great Grandad Herbert Robert Ellis, or his dad Reuben Robert. Possibly my great-great Grandma Priscilla or her dad and brothers- they all hunted, too, down south by the state line with Kentucky. But I digress.

Unbeknownst to us, our local conservation club had signed on for some repopulation efforts in our part of the Illinois Valley. They had done some wild trap-and-release with moderate success, but for some harebrained reason, they also decided to hand raise some turkeys. But they didn’t limit human contact with the birds.

That brings me back to, well, me. Me and my kid sister, wandering and playing while mom and dad did some clean up work. We were towards the back of the property in the trees. In the Springtime, there would be a massive hatch of ladybugs. They would cover the entire ground and the bases of tree trunks. One such hatch was happening that day. Suddenly, we look up from our play to see a big, dark shape moving through the trees. It had two legs, and it bobbed its head as it wove between the tree trunks. It pecked the ground eating ladybugs. It was also coming right for us. Somehow, we had the presence of mind to calmly walk away in an attempt to escape, instead of running in terror at what was obviously some sort of dinosaur come to devour us.

We hurry away, it follows us. We hurry a bit farther, it still follows us, and it’s getting even closer. Finally, we give it up and run in terror, my full-blown dinomania convincing me that the kitchen scene from Jurassic Park is about to commence. We find my mom picking up some litter up closer to the road.

“MOM MOM!” we screamed, “THERE IS A GIANT BIRD AND IT’S CHASING US HELP!”

My mother eyed us skeptically. We always had been imaginative children. “There are no giant birds in Illinois.” she said, “Now go and play, your father and I are busy”.

As she turns back to her task, dinobird comes strutting around a brush pile. Mom drops everything in her hands and hollers at the top of her lungs “OH GOD JOHN GET OVER HERE THERE IS A GIANT BIRD AND IT’S CHASING THE GIRLS!” Not only had mom never seen a turkey herself, but a few bad experiences with mean roosters and parrots have given her a lifelong fear of birds.

Dad came running. I mean, giant terror birds, right? But he’d seen pictures, if not the genuine article. When he sees dinobird, he laughs. “It’s a turkey!”, he exclaimed.

Dinobird reduced to a holiday dinner course, it was much less frightening. We assumed it had been hand raised with little to no fear of humans. It was probably looking to be fed, honestly. However, after that, it was all we could do to convince my dad not to wring its neck and toss it in the pickup truck. Funny, considering how desperately I want a gobbler in the back of the truck nowadays.

 

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