Wild Turkeys and Black Widows


osceola-turkeyIt was my first attempt to take an Osceola wild turkey (aka the Florida wild turkey) in my quest for a North American grand slam. Most of my turkey hunting the previous 25 years had been spent pursuing Rio Grande turkeys in northern Californian oak woodlands. A grand slam is achieved by taking those two birds plus the Merriam’s and eastern wild turkey, variants of a single species (Meleagris gallopavo) known as the wild turkey. The location for the Osceola hunt was a private ranch in central Florida, a short drive south of Orlando. Besides harboring a plentiful population of Osceolas, the ranch is home to an amazing array of wildlife.

The landowner who was doubling as my guide, John Partin, and I were consumed in our own thoughts as we slowly navigated among swamps and pastureland in his pick-up truck. John is a robust individual who chooses his words carefully, someone who exudes environmental savvy of the type named Naturalistic Intelligence by Howard Gardner in his theory of multiple intelligences.

Our destination was a 150-acre pasture bordered by longleaf pine and palmetto forests where we had hunted the previous morning. On that occasion, we arrived at the pasture nearly an hour before first light. A handful of gobblers began vocalizing on their roosts in the piney woods soon afterward.   Several toms eventually emerged from the forest edge, including a handsome long-beard that dwarfed the others. They began strutting amid a small group of seemingly oblivious hens. This mating-dance display continued for two to three hours as the hens randomly led the hapless toms on a birdseye tour of the pasture. We watched helplessly as the gobblers ignored our occasional yelps, clucks and purrs intended to imitate those of seductive hens. Not once did they approach our setup position along the margin of the palmettos. After the birds exited the pasture at mid-morning, we hunted lucklessly elsewhere until early afternoon.

According to Mullen and Vetter, the bite of the southern black widow usually is experienced as either a pinprick or a sharp burning pain.  Within one to three hours, the developing pain spreads to other body parts and peaks in intensity, then may persist for up to two days.  It is accompanied by muscular spasms and cramping in the abdomen and legs that may cause tightness in the chest and washboard-like rigidity of the abdominal muscles.  In more serious cases, shock and death may follow in up to 4 to 5 percent of untreated patients.  In California, renowned medical entomologist William Herms reported long ago that the bite of what we now call the western black widow was equally deadly--formerly the black widow spiders were considered to represent a single species that occurred in nearly every state in the United States, except Alaska.  Furthermore, California Indians considered this spider to be as venomous as rattlesnakes.  Some tribes even took advantage of its poisonous properties by crushing the spider and dipping their arrowheads into its bodily fluids.  Nowadays an effective antivenin is available for treating symptoms caused by widow-spider bites if administered right away.
According to Mullen and Vetter, the bite of the southern black widow usually is experienced as either a pinprick or a sharp burning pain. Within one to three hours, the developing pain spreads to other body parts and peaks in intensity, then may persist for up to two days. It is accompanied by muscular spasms and cramping in the abdomen and legs that may cause tightness in the chest and washboard-like rigidity of the abdominal muscles. In more serious cases, shock and death may follow in up to 4 to 5 percent of untreated patients. In California, renowned medical entomologist William Herms reported long ago that the bite of what we now call the western black widow was equally deadly–formerly the black widow spiders were considered to represent a single species that occurred in nearly every state in the United States, except Alaska. Furthermore, California Indians considered this spider to be as venomous as rattlesnakes. Some tribes even took advantage of its poisonous properties by crushing the spider and dipping their arrowheads into its bodily fluids. Nowadays an effective antivenin is available for treating symptoms caused by widow-spider bites if administered right away.

John broke the silence as we approached the pasture in total darkness. He informed me that after we parted company yesterday, he revisited the same pasture later that afternoon and constructed a blind. Using debris from a dilapidated cattle feeder, he built it in a small patch of wild-berry bushes well removed from the palmettos. The turkeys, including the tom of choice, had wandered close to its perimeter the day before. That piqued my interest until John went on to say, matter-of-factly, that he had dispatched a few black widow spiders during the assembly process.

At the risk of sounding like a citified wimp, I admit that some anxiety suddenly welled up inside me. A medical entomologist by profession, I knew from firsthand knowledge and my lecture notes on venomous spiders, insects and the like that, as a group, the black widow spiders are active primarily at night. They also are prone to bite people when their living space is invaded. The notorious female black widow, the culprit of concern, is particularly apt to bite when guarding her egg sac. So, seeking reassurance I asked John if he thought he had managed to kill all the widows present among the debris. His response, “probably not,” was, to put it mildly, somewhat disquieting.

I shared my reluctance (read refusal) to enter the blind, the reasons for it and thanked John for his thoughtful intentions. He accepted my explanation without pressing the issue, but nevertheless we briefly inspected the blind with a flashlight before setting up among the palmettos. I remarked after viewing it that since we weren’t going to occupy it, the boss tom doubtless would walk right by the wild-berry patch as he had the day before.

Sometimes I can predict the future with uncanny accuracy. Murphy’s Law kicked in, and it didn’t take very long. The second morning was virtually a mirror image of the first. We watched five male turkeys sashaying around the pasture in an abortive attempt to attract the attention of several uninterested hens. They included the same larger tom I favored that was at least three years old plus four likely two-year old toms and a jake. Repeated attempts to lure them near us resulted in utter failure. And, as predicted, the older tom and one of the subordinate toms walked within comfortable shooting distance of the blind.

We finally stood up around 9:30 when the last two mature toms in the pasture began heading for the piney woods with five hens in tow.

Florida Wild Turkey
John Partin, displaying a fan of Osceola tail feathers that he used to halt the progress, and temporarily attract the attention, of the toms we were pursuing.

They were about a quarter of a mile away and walking at a leisurely clip. Not ready to give up, I told John that I would like to pursue them by means of a spot-and-stalk hunt before they disappeared. He agreed. A large, dense palmetto patch bordered the pasture to our immediate right, and extended outwardly from our position for several hundred yards toward the woods. The birds were walking away from us just to the left of that patch.

We entered the palmettos and moved quickly toward the toms along a narrow sandy pathway. We eventually entered a drainage ditch, climbed the opposite embankment and John cautiously peered along the edge of cover to pinpoint their location. They still were too far off for a shot, but perhaps no more than 10 minutes away from entering the forest. We reentered the ditch and hurriedly covered another 100 yards or so. John was in the lead. He gazed through the fringe of the palmettos and discovered that the toms were no more than 40 to 50 yards distant.

To entice the toms closer, John employed a turkey-hunting stratagem unfamiliar to me. He slowly advanced to the inner border of the pasture and squatted like a baseball catcher, while holding an Osceola tail-feather fan upright in front of him. He slowly tilted the fan backward and forward to mimic that of a strutting tom. The ploy worked, at least temporarily–the toms halted, did an about-face and gradually moved toward him before hanging up at about 40 yards. Soon afterward, they inexplicably turned around and resumed their slow gait toward the woodland.

Oceola Turkey
The two-year old tom the author harvested by means of a spot-and-stalk hunt.

John glanced at me and whispered, “It’s now or never,” because by then the birds had moved more than 50 yards away. I knew what I had to do and did it–I moved to the edge of cover, aimed at the top of the head of one of them, and off-handedly discharged a round of 1¼-ounces of No. 4 Hevi-Shot with a Remington Model 11-87 Super Magnum 12-gauge shotgun equipped with a Nikon ProStaff 2-7×32 shotgun scope. Although the tom was hit hard, a finishing shot was required after a brief chase into the palmettos. By comparison, I have never taken a Rio Grande turkey at a distance exceeding 35 yards in Californian woodlands–in fact, most of my shots on gobblers have ranged from 15 to 25 yards.

 

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