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   Chapter 2 RANGE, VARIATION, AND NAME

The Philosophy of Despair By David Starr Jordan Characters: 14746

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


When America was discovered the wild turkey inhabited the wooded portion of the entire country, from the southern provinces of Canada and southern Maine, south to southern Mexico, and from Arizona, Kansas, and Nebraska, east to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. As the turkey is not a migratory bird in the sense that migration is usually interpreted, and while the range of the species is one of great extent, as might be expected, owing to the operation of the usual causes, a number of subspecies have resulted. At the present time, ornithologists recognize four of these as occurring within the limits of the United States, as set forth in Chapter IV beyond.

In countries thickly settled, as in the one where I now write, there is a great variety of wild turkeys scattered about in the woods of the small creeks and hills. Many hybrid wild turkeys are killed here every year. The cause of this is: every old gobbler that dares to open its mouth to gobble in the spring is within the hearing of farmers, negroes, and others, and is a marked bird. It is given no rest until it is killed; hence there are few or no wild turkeys to take care of the hens, which then visit the domestic gobbler about the farm-yards. Hence this crossing with the wild one is responsible for a great variety of plumages.

I once saw a flock of hybrids while hunting squirrels in Pelahatchie swamp, Mississippi, as I sat at the root of a tree eating lunch, about one o'clock, with gun across my lap, as I never wish to be caught out of reach of my gun. Suddenly I heard a noise in the leaves, and on looking in that direction I saw a considerable flock of turkeys coming directly toward me in a lively manner, eagerly searching for food. The moment these birds came in sight I saw they had white tips to their tails, but they had the form and action of the wild turkey, and it at once occurred to me that they were a lot of mixed breeds, half wild, half tame, with the freedom of the former. I noticed also among them one that was nearly white and one old gobbler that was a pure wild turkey; but it was too far off to shoot him. Dropping the lunch and grasping the gun was but the work of a second; then the birds came round the end of the log and began scratching under a beech tree for nuts. Seeing two gobblers put their heads together at about forty yards from me, I fired, killing both. The flock flew and ran in all directions. One hen passed within twenty paces of me and I killed it with the second barrel. A closer examination of the dead birds convinced me that there had been a cross between the wild and the tame turkeys. The skin on their necks and heads was as yellow as an orange, or more of a buckskin, buff color, while the caruncles on the neck were tinged with vermilion, giving them a most peculiar appearance; all three of those slain had this peculiar marking, and there was not a shadow of the blue or purple of the wild turkey about their heads, while all other points, save the white-tipped feathers, indicated the wild blood.

Shortly after the foregoing incident, while a party of gentlemen, including my brother, were hunting some five miles below the same creek, they flushed a flock of wild turkeys, scattering them; one of the party killed four of them that evening, two of which (hens) were full-blood wild ones. One of the remaining two, a fine gobbler, had as red a head as any tame gobbler, and the tips of the tail and rump coverts were white. The other bird (a hen) was also a half-breed. There was no buff on their heads and necks, but the purple and blue of the wild blood was apparent.

Early the next morning my brother went to the place where the turkeys were scattered the previous afternoon, and began to call. Very soon he had a reply, and three fine gobblers came running to him, when he killed two, one with each barrel; now these were full-blood wild ones.

I have noted that a number of wild turkeys in the Brazos bottoms are very different in some respects from the turkeys of the piney woods in the eastern section of that state. In Trinity County, Texas, I found the largest breed of wild turkeys I have found anywhere, but in the Brazos bottoms the gobblers which I found there in 1876, in great abundance, were of a smaller stature, but more chunky or bulky. Their gobble was hardly like that of a wild turkey, the sound resembling the gobble of a turkey under a barrel, a hoarse, guttural rumble, quite different in tone from the clear, loud, rolling gobble of his cousin in the Trinity country. The gobblers of the Brazos bottoms were also distinguishable by their peculiar beards. In other varieties of turkeys three inches or less of the upper end of the beard is grayish, while those of the Brazos bottoms were more bunchy and black up to the skin of the breast. There is a variety of turkeys in the San Jacinto region, in the same state, which is quite slender, dark in color, and has a beard quite thin in brush, but long and picturesque. His gobble is shrill. This section is a low plain, generally wet in the spring, partly timbered and partly open prairie. It is a great place for the turkey.

Since the days of Audubon it has been prophesied that the wild turkey would soon become extinct. I am glad to say that the prophecies have not been realized up to the present time, even with the improved implements of destruction and great increase of hunters. There is no game that holds its own so well as the wild turkey. This is particularly true in the southern Gulf States, where are to be found heavily timbered regions, which are suited to the habits of this bird. Here shelter is afforded and an ample food supply is provided the year round. In the states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and the Indian Territory the wild turkey is still to be found in reasonable abundance, and if these states will protect them by the right sort of laws, I am of the opinion that the birds will increase rapidly, despite the encroachment of civilization and the war waged upon them by sportsmen. It is not the legitimate methods of destruction that decimate the turkey ranks, as is the case with the quail and grouse, but it is the nefarious tricks the laws in many states permit, namely, trapping and baiting. The latter is by far the most destructive, and is practised by those who kill turkeys for the market, and frequently by those who want to slaughter these birds solely for count. No creature, however prolific, can stand such treatment long. The quail, though shot in great numbers by both sportsmen and market hunters, and annually destroyed legitimately by the thousands, stands it better than the wild turkey, although the latter produces and raises almost as many young at a time as the quail.

There are two reasons for this: one is, the quail are not baited and shot on the ground; the other reason is that every bobwhite in the spring can, and does, use his call, thus bringing to him a mate; but the turkey, if he dares to gobble, no matter if he is the only turkey within a radius of forty miles, has every one who hears him and can procure a gun, after him, and they pursue him relentlessly until he is killed. Among the turkeys the hens raised are greatly in excess of the gobblers. This fact seems to have been provided for by natu

re in making the male turkey polygamous; but as the male turkey is, during the spring, a very noisy bird, continually gobbling and strutting to attract his harem, and as he is much larger and more conspicuous than the hens, it is only natural that he is in more danger of being killed. Suppose the proportion of gobblers in the beginning of the spring is three to fifteen hens, in a certain stretch of woods. As soon as the mating season begins, these gobblers will make their whereabouts known by their noise; result-the gunners are after them at once, and the chances are ten to one they will all be killed. The hens will then have no mate and no young will be produced; whereas, if but one gobbler were left, each of our supposed fifteen hens would raise an average of ten young each, and we would also have 150 new turkeys in the fall to yield sport and food. It has always been my practice to leave at least one old gobbler in each locality to assist the hens in reproduction. If every hunter would do this the problem of maintaining the turkey supply would be greatly solved.

The greatest of all causes for the decrease of wild turkeys lies in the killing of all the old gobblers in the spring. Some say the yearling gobblers will answer every purpose. I say they will not; they answer no purpose except to grow and make gobblers for the next year. The hens are all right-you need have no anxiety about them; they can take care of themselves; provided you leave them a male bird that gobbles, they will do the rest. Any suitable community can have all the wild turkeys it wants if it will obtain a few specimens and turn them into a small woodland about the beginning of spring, spreading grain of some sort for them daily. The turkeys will stay where the food is abundant and where there is a little brush in which to retire and rest.

Some hunters, or rather some writers, claim that the only time the wild turkey should be hunted is in the autumn and winter, and not in the spring. I have a different idea altogether, and claim that the turkey should not be hunted before November, if then, December being better. By the first of November the young gobbler weighs from seven to nine pounds, the hens from four to seven pounds; in December and January the former weighs twelve pounds and the latter nine pounds. There you are. But suppose you did not hunt in the spring at all. How many old, long-bearded gobblers (the joy and delight above every sort of game on earth to the turkey hunter) would you bag in a year, or a lifetime? Possibly in ten years you would get one, unless by the merest accident, as they are rarely, if ever, found in company with the hens or young gobblers, but go in small bands by themselves, and from their exclusive and retiring nature it is a rare occasion when one is killed except in the gobbling season.

Take away the delight of the gobbling season from the turkey hunter, and the quest of the wild turkey would lose its fascination. In so expressing myself, I do not advise that the gobblers be persecuted and worried all through the gobbling season, from March to June, but believe they could be hunted for a limited time, namely, until the hens begin to lay and the gobblers to lose their fat-say until the first of April. Every old turkey hunter knows where to stop, and does it without limitation of law. Old gobblers are in their best condition until about the first of April, then they begin to lose flesh very rapidly. At this time hunting them should be abandoned altogether.

In my hunting trips after this bird I have covered most of the southern states, and have been interested to note that all the Indians I have met called the turkey "Furkee" or "Firkee"; the tribes I have hunted with include the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and the Cherokees, who live east of the Mississippi River, and the Alabams, Conchattas, and Zunis of the west. Whether their name for the bird is a corruption of our turkey, or whether our word is a corruption of their "Furkee," I am not prepared to state. It may be that we get our name direct from the aboriginal Indians. All of the Indian tribes I have hunted with have legends concerning the turkey, and to certain of the Aztec tribes it was an object of worship. An old Zuni chief once told me a curious legend of his people concerning this bird, very similar to the story of the flood. It runs:

Ages ago, before man came to live on the earth, all birds, beasts, and fishes lived in harmony as one family, speaking the same language, and subsisting on sweet herbs and grass that grew in abundance all over the earth. Suddenly one day the sun ceased to shine, the sky became covered with heavy clouds, and rain began to fall. For a long time this continued, and neither the sun, moon, nor stars were seen. After a while the water got so deep that the birds, animals, and fishes had either to swim or fly in the air, as there was no land to stand on. Those that could not swim or fly were carried around on the backs of those that could, and this kept up until almost every living thing was almost starved. Then all the creatures held a meeting, and one from each kind was selected to go to heaven and ask the Great Spirit to send back the sun, moon, and stars and stop the rain. These journeyed a long way and at last found a great ladder running into the sky; they climbed up this ladder and found at the top a trapdoor leading into heaven, and on passing through the door, which was open, they saw the dwelling-place of man, and before the door were a boy and girl playing, and their playthings were the sun, moon, and stars belonging to the earth. As soon as the earth creatures saw the sun, moon, and stars, they rushed for them and, gathering them into a basket, took the children of man and hurried back to earth through the trapdoor. In their hurry to get away from the man whom they saw running after them, the trapdoor was slammed on the tail of the bear, cutting it off. The blood spattered over the lynx and trout, and since that time the bear has had no tail, and the lynx and trout are spotted. The buffalo fell down and hurt his back and has had a hump on it ever since. The sun, moon, and stars having been put back in their places, the rain stopped at once and the waters quickly dried up. On the first appearance of land, the turkey, who had been flying around all the time, lit, although warned not to do so by the other creatures. It at once began to sink in the mud, and its tail stuck to the mud so tight that it could hardly fly up, and when it did get away the end of its tail was covered with mud and is stained mud color to this day. The earth now having become dry and the children of man now lords of the earth, each creature was obliged to keep out of their way, so the fishes took to the waters using their tails to swim away from man, the birds took to their wings, and the animals took to their legs; and by these means the birds, beasts, and fishes have kept out of man's way ever since.

Before dealing with the wild turkeys as they are to-day, it will be well to make a short study of their prehistoric and historic standing; this has been ably done for me by Dr. R. W. Shufeldt of Washington, D. C., who has very kindly written for this work the next two chapters entitled "The Turkey Prehistoric," and "The Turkey Historic."

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