Look Before You Sit

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The Russian River valley, where oak woodlands like those in the foreground are a preferred habitat of Rio Grande turkeys.

It began like countless other spring wild-turkey hunts I experienced in northwestern California in the Russian River valley, a region where I have hunted Rio Grande turkeys for many years. Early to bed, early to rise and then the much-anticipated uphill trek in the inky black, predawn darkness on a mountainous, oak/woodland dominated property.

Since I began hunting this subspecies of wild turkey in the late 1980s, Rio Grande populations have exploded in Northern California and even reached pest-status proportions in some areas, especially during the past decade.

It was mid-April 2005, a time when during a normal weather year (is there such a thing anymore?) most of the hens are spending their daylight hours either incubating their eggs or feeding rather than cavorting with the single-minded, polygamous toms. The spring turkey-hunting season in California spans late March to early May. Until about mid-April, the dominant toms that do most of the breeding are tending their harems, and are difficult to call in unless a competitive or curious hen lures them into range, an all-too-infrequent occurrence.

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The slate call used to lure many Rio Grande turkeys within shooting range.

As I climbed slowly uphill, I listened carefully for the telltale gobbling of roosted toms, which may begin calling hens nearly an hour before sunrise. Later in the morning, when toms cease gobbling, I invariably glass for them and try to locate their signs, such as their characteristic J-shaped droppings and large-sized tracks.

I reached my intended destination around daybreak and setup against the trunk of a large oak in the same area where I killed my first tom on this ranch years earlier. As daylight emerged, I uttered a short series of soft tree yelps with a 1980s vintage slate call that I favor, to no avail.

Before mid-morning, I spotted two turkeys in separate locations while traversing more than a mile of foothill rangeland. One was far enough away to be of indeterminate sex, the other was a lone tom in a large grassy flat no more than 100 yards away. Neither bird showed any interest in my imploring yelps, however.

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Pairs or larger groups of Rio Grande males engage in cooperative mating behavior during the breeding season, but only one of them reproduces.

Male Bonding

The only encouragement I received, albeit apparently not in response to my periodic calling, was that occasionally I heard some very faint gobbles originating from a ridge high atop the ranch, a climb of perhaps 1,000 feet or more. Running out of options, I decided to explore the ridge top and, I hoped, locate what I now perceived to be two toms hanging out together.

In California, research has revealed that genetically related pairs, or larger groups, of mature Rio Grande males engage in cooperative courtship behavior. This team strategy, as compared with solitary courtship, increases the reproductive success of the dominant male (the subordinate males do not reproduce), and therefore helps to ensure passage of their shared genetic material to the next generation. After the early morning mating dance ends and the hens resume foraging or return to their nests, bonded toms are vulnerable to the call and may provide the hunter with a choice of two or more longbeards.

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The author set up against an oak tree, and prepared to call in a bird.

As I neared the summit and resumed calling, the series of double gobbling intensified and grew louder in response to my yelps. The birds were located in a dense stand of oaks, most of which were too narrow in diameter to conceal the breadth of my shoulders.

After entering the woodland, I quickly located a suitable tree and sat down because the birds were less than 75 yards away. In my haste, I forgot to examine the bark for presence of ants, a cardinal sin for a medical entomologist who, based upon past experience, should have known better. I began yelping, and both birds responded instantly with loud, overlapping gobbles. After a repeat performance a few minutes later, the toms approached rapidly and were about to appear up-close and personal.

An Unwelcome Intruder

Unfortunately, just before they showed up less than 30 paces away, I became aware of my folly. A bi-colored, fairly large-sized wood ant was sharing the trunk-landscape with me, and as I was soon to learn, it possessed a belligerent personality. This ant had not only abundantly infested my camouflage clothing from my buttocks up my backside to the top of my head, but it was invading my head net inside and out. Worse, it was about to reveal its displeasure with my unwelcome presence.

Well, you probably guessed it. By then, the birds had arrived, too. Their beady eyeballs were riveted on me, the source of the seductive, female-like sounds they had been tracking. At the time of their arrival, my shotgun was nestled across my knees with the safety device in the off-position, and I was frozen like a rope in a Canadian blizzard, awaiting the opportunity to close the deal.

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A wood ant (Formica sp.) similar in size and coloration to the species that attacked the author during the hunting experience described here.

Several minor obstacles had to be overcome first, not the least of which was that the wood ants were having a field day, and I was their field of play. I must have either annoyed or squashed one or more of their brethren by my occasional bodily movements because right after the toms appeared, all hell broke loose. Those ants that had managed to penetrate my clothing and contact my skin began biting with a vengeance.

When certain species of ants lose their cool, they release what entomologists call an alarm pheromone. A pheromone is a chemical signal emitted by an individual that influences the behavior or development of other individuals of the same species. Ant alarm pheromones are defensive secretions aimed at recruiting fellow nest-mates to protect the colony. One such alarm pheromone, formic acid, is recognizable by its pungent odor. Some ants that lack a stinger, such as the wood ants biting me, spray formic acid at their intruders or secrete it into the wounds caused by their bites.

I needed to make a decision, fast – should I remove the ants biting me on the face and elsewhere, and run the great risk of having to say goodbye to the two longbeards intently staring in my direction, or gut it out until I could get a clear and decisive head shot at one of them?

It was a no-brainer after I contemplated how much effort I had expended to reach this point of the hunt. But, there were two other difficulties that I also had to confront before I could end what was becoming an ordeal. The two toms were standing uncomfortably close together like a pair of Siamese twins joined at the hip and, to my further dismay, there was a tree in the foreground that blocked my line of fire.

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A mature tom harvested by the writer in the Russian River valley in spring 2011. It weighed over 20 pounds, had spurs exceeding 1 inch in length and sported a 10-inch beard.

Luckily, this standstill lasted only a few minutes, though it seemed like an eternity. The ants continued their unrelenting assault on the source of their discontent. Tiring of the game, and because the toms stood firmly in place, I slowly leaned to my left so that I could shoot around the trunk fronting me.

One of the toms spotted my movement, and promptly elevated its head to get a better look at the moving foreign object. As it did, I aimed my Remington Model 870 Express 12-gauge shotgun high on its head to minimize hitting the other bird, and delivered a load of 1 5/8 ounces of No.4 shot offhand. The tom dropped in its tracks as the other bird ran off into a nearby ravine. I followed the flight-path of the second tom to make certain that I hadn’t wounded it, and thankfully it was nowhere in sight.

The tom I killed was an older bird with a nearly 10-inch, sparse beard and well-worn spurs, one of which was broken off at the tip. Its partner likewise was a longbeard. Over the years, I have taken many mature toms on this particular ranch and another nearby one including several trophy birds. Needless to say, since the incident with the wood ants, I have made it a point to look before I sit.– Robert S. Lane, Ph.D.

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