Ron Nelsen was just packing up after a morning’s turkey hunt in a forest near the tiny community of Providence Forge in eastern Virginia when we met him on a forest track. ‘I had a Jake [a young male] that came pretty close early this morning but I didn’t want to shoot him. Too young. It’s important to have a strong population here. He walked away after a while and I just let him walk off. I love being out in the forest with nature. I’ve been hunting for 60 years and I’m 68 now. I just sit for hours, up against a tree maybe, using callers I’ve gotten to attract a Tom,’ he commented dressed in full camouflage gear, shotgun in hand.
Ron, a Virginian by birth, was building a house on a piece of open land he’d bought within the forest we were walking in. It was to be his retirement home with his wife and he took us to see the construction. Made entirely out of wood, the living accommodation was built on the upper level so that he could look out into the trees he loved. It’s this combination of a love for the land, the unquestionable right of people to have guns for hunting, a bit of the old frontiersman attitude that still prevails in the US countryside and all combined with good manners and friendliness that makes American rural culture so entrancing.
Wildlife Travel To Turkey Photo Gallery
I was spending much of a day with Phil West of Virginia State’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to learn about the recovery of the Wild Turkey here in the USA. It was to write a feature for CNN Traveller magazine but what I learnt there also contributed in much more detail to a chapter in my blog Back from the Brink (Whittles, 2015). Phil and I were walking in a local area of forest, talking turkey, when we happened to meet Ron.
Ron Nelsen’s turkey callers – all cleverly made to mimic some of a Tom Turkey’s calls – were evidence of a craft in themselves. Little wooden boxes with sliding dowels to make rasping sounds; small wooden ‘strikers’ to click on a slate; and various other devices that yelp and cluck, some he had made himself and all to attract an enquiring turkey Tom who is likely to come close to see what competition he might have locally.
Turkeys, much like their close relatives and gamebirds in general, aren’t blessed with much vocal talent; no songs or musical calls, just a range of what are rather euphemistically referred to as ‘vocalisations’. To be realistic, these are better described as ‘gobbles’, ‘clucks’, ‘putts’, ‘purrs’, ‘yelps’, ‘whines’, ‘cackles’ and ‘kee-kees’ – take your pick – and Ron, and other hunters like him, can probably copy most or all of them using their turkey callers. In early spring, male turkeys gobble loudly to announce their presence to females and competing males. The gobble can carry long distances. Hens yelp to let gobblers know their location. Yet more confusingly, gobblers often yelp like females, and hens can gobble, though they rarely do so. Immature males -the jakes – often yelp too. So it’s little wonder that hunters wanting to attract them towards their gun need a wide variety of callers producing an array of sounds.
Phil was incredibly helpful, filling me in on a series of attempts to supplement the very low numbers of turkeys that had existed in the state after the early white settlers almost wiped them out as they did across the whole of the USA. Turkey meat was seemingly just too tasty to be left with feathers attached in the American forests. Before the settlers arrived there might have been 10 million Wild Turkeys in the USA. By 1910 maybe 30,000 remained. Huge swathes of the country had none left.
Protection from hunters, breeding programmes and reintroductions into areas from which they had been extirpated did the trick, though it took several decades. Today there are an estimated 7 million Wild Turkeys in the USA with around 200,000 in Virginia alone, slightly fewer than the number of state-registered hunters!
‘It’s impossible to see them if you walk off-track into a forest,’ Phil told me. ‘They’ll hear you coming way before you see anything. And even though they roost at night high up in a tree, they’re real hard to spot in spite of their size. They’re hard to hunt too. You have to get into an inhabited wood before first light. Then settle down and mimic the calls of the Hens to attract a Tom. It’s a quiet yelp noise and he comes looking. You don’t shoot until they are, say, 30 m away,’ he said.
It was good advice. I found it impossible to spot one in any piece of forest even though every muddy track I walked along had a plethora of giveaway turkey footprints. On one such track it was easier to spot a green and brown camouflaged hide with a shotgun barrel pointing out of it. A quiet enquiry of the incumbent revealed that he hadn’t seen a turkey either. He sounded a tad frustrated. But Wild Turkeys proved incredibly easy to spot in open fields where they often come out to search for and eat invertebrates and young plant shoots to supplement the berries, acorns and bark they eat in forests. Turkeys often walk about in groups searching the ground as they go, their bronze-sheened dark plumage and – on males – that bare-skinned blue and near-red head and neck a giveaway.
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