An Example of Misfortune Being also a case for map work, headlamps at dawn, and tilting at windmills.
[by Michael J. Finley]
“Truly I was born to be an example of misfortune, and a target at which the arrows of adversary are aimed.” —Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
IT IS HELPFUL FOR CITY-DWELLING HUNTERS that Disney never managed to make the turkey into a lovable character. Another studio tried, but Free Birds, a film about turkeys “from opposite sides of the tracks” who travel through time (why not?), was neither well made nor popular enough to Bambify turkeys in the public imagination. As a result, Meleagris gallopavo has largely avoided speaking in English, seeing with big blue eyes, or enjoying human conscience and complex desires. For right or wrong, these iconic birds remain an unlikely candidate to support non-hunters’ often fanciful views of the animal kingdom.
Even more helpfully, farmed turkeys as a food product are still presented to urban consumers more or less whole in body. Unlike other animals that are disarticulated and made abstract in sanitized, packaged portions, whole turkeys show up on the dinner table with wings and legs attached. Indeed, they are sold with the neck and (gasp!) internal organs included. It is possible, at least generically, for consumers to envision this big bird walking about, to picture its feathers, and to appreciate that the breast meat on their plate once held within it a beating heart.
These two important facts don’t make hunting turkeys any easier for the city dweller. They do, however, make it easier to discuss hunting with the average urban non-hunter. That is to say, with almost everybody I know.
In my non-hunting life, I am a junior lawyer in Canada’s largest city. Most of my acquaintances are young professionals in their late 20s and early 30s who have never seen a gun and don’t know a single hunter besides me. They are almost universally surprised (if not shocked and disturbed) that I hunt. I usually get two questions. The first, which I’ve always found confusing and dispiriting, is: “So, do you eat the meat?” Um, well, yes, actually. The second is: “What do you hunt?”
For the two aforementioned reasons, I always say turkeys, generally omitting the range of other game birds I pursue.
This usually gives my interlocutor pause. They really think of turkeys only as food, having never cuddled a plush turkey at bedtime as a child. Typically, the response is renewed interest and a merciful moment of respite from judgment. This gives me the opportunity to leap in and hit them with my one-two-three punch of talking points tailored to the non-hunter: Free range. Locally sourced. Conservation. Bam, bam, bam!
I rarely bother to touch on the esoteric and often minute joys in hunting—the frigid awe of watching a marsh awaken, the quickening of the senses, the sorrow-tinted triumph vested in a delicate, crumpled bird. Most people I know walk through the woods, and not into them, and such points just do not resonate.
Here, then, is the inevitably embarrassing problem with this turkey-forward approach to hunting conversation: I’ve never successfully killed one. Never. Despite getting up in the predawn dark for three years running since the first spring that I, as a novice with no mentor other than the Internet, took up hunting. Canada geese? Sure. Ducks? Oh yes. Ruffed grouse, too. But turkeys? No. They have become an unfortunate example of the virtues of hunting because, as yet, I am completely unable to answer from first hand experience the third most common dinner-party question.
“What does wild turkey taste like?”
At this I am left deflated, a faintly absurd, quixotic figure who tends to change the subject. This is annoying, for as hunting author and MeatEater host Steven Rinella often says, turkeys are born to die. Poult mortality, according to some studies, is between 56 and 73 percent within the first 14 days of hatching. Average life span is only about 1 1/2 years. A turkey more than three years of age is an old turkey and more than likely some winning combination of lucky, wily, and mean. They are killed by coyotes, by owls, by hawks, by eagles, and by cars. But they are very, very good at not getting killed by me.
I COMMITTED TO RESOLVING THAT PROBLEM this past turkey season, my fourth. I would do everything right—better camouflage, more careful call discipline—you name it. I watched innumerable YouTube videos and listened to endless recordings of live hens. Whenever my long-suffering girlfriend was out of the house, I spoke only in yelps and purrs, practicing in the bathroom, in the backyard, in the car. Hell, I even carried a diaphragm call in my mouth when biking to work one day and used it as a bell; a strategy that, for a host of reasons, I cannot recommend.
Still, because I was a novice hunter with little experience and limited access to nearby land, the odds were decidedly not in my favor. They improved significantly with permission to hunt a new property I’d never been to, a farm located a mere hour and a half outside the city. It belonged to a friend’s neighbor, located in the rolling hill country near Caledon, Ontario. Like many farms in the area, it was a vacation property rather than an operating concern. That meant low hunting pressure, which meant turkeys. And after an unsuccessful opening weekend, we knew the birds were there in some numbers. On my second outing, with my friend Liam, I vowed to end the drought.