John James Audubon.

Ornithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) online

. (page 3 of 50)
Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) → online text (page 3 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

puff, lowering their tail and other feathers immediately after. During
clear nights, or when there is moonshine, they perform this action at
intervals of a few minutes, for hours together, without moving from the
same spot, and indeed sometimes without rising on their legs, especially
towards the end of the love-season. The males now become greatly
emaciated, and cease to gobble, their _breast-sponge_ becoming flat.
They then separate from the hens, and one might suppose that they had
entirely deserted their neighbourhood. At such seasons I have found them
lying by the side of a log, in some retired part of the dense woods and
cane thickets, and often permitting one to approach within a few feet.
They are then unable to fly, but run swiftly, and to a great distance. A
slow turkey-hound has led me miles before I could flush the same bird.
Chases of this kind I did not undertake for the purpose of killing the
bird, it being then unfit for eating, and covered with ticks, but with
the view of rendering myself acquainted with its habits. They thus retire
to recover flesh and strength, by purging with particular species of
grass, and using less exercise. As soon as their condition is improved,
the cocks come together again, and recommence their rambles. Let us now
return to the females.

About the middle of April, when the season is dry, the hens begin to
look out for a place in which to deposit their eggs. This place requires
to be as much as possible concealed from the eye of the Crow, as that
bird often watches the Turkey when going to her nest, and, waiting in
the neighbourhood until she has left it, removes and eats the eggs. The
nest, which consists of a few withered leaves, is placed on the ground,
in a hollow scooped out, by the side of a log, or in the fallen top of
a dry leafy tree, under a thicket of sumach or briars, or a few feet
within the edge of a cane-brake, but always in a dry place. The eggs,
which are of a dull cream colour, sprinkled with red dots, sometimes
amount to twenty, although the more usual number is from ten to fifteen.
When depositing her eggs, the female always approaches the nest with
extreme caution, scarcely ever taking the same course twice; and when
about to leave them, covers them carefully with leaves, so that it is
very difficult for a person who may have seen the bird to discover the
nest. Indeed, few Turkeys' nests are found, unless the female has been
suddenly started from them, or a cunning Lynx, Fox, or Crow has sucked
the eggs and left their shells scattered about.

Turkey hens not unfrequently prefer islands for depositing their eggs and
rearing their young, probably because such places are less frequented by
hunters, and because the great masses of drifted timber which usually
accumulate at their heads, may protect and save them in cases of great
emergency. When I have found these birds in such situations, and with
young, I have always observed that a single discharge of a gun made them
run immediately to the pile of drifted wood, and conceal themselves in
it. I have often walked over these masses, which are frequently from
ten to twenty feet in height, in search of the game which I knew to be
concealed in them.

When an enemy passes within sight of a female, while laying or sitting,
she never moves, unless she knows that she has been discovered, but
crouches lower until he has passed. I have frequently approached within
five or six paces of a nest, of which I was previously aware, on assuming
an air of carelessness, and whistling or talking to myself, the female
remaining undisturbed; whereas if I went cautiously towards it, she would
never suffer me to approach within twenty paces, but would run off, with
her tail spread on one side, to a distance of twenty or thirty yards,
when assuming a stately gait, she would walk about deliberately, uttering
every now and then a cluck. They seldom abandon their nest, when it has
been discovered by men; but, I believe, never go near it again, when
a snake or other animal has sucked any of the eggs. If the eggs have
been destroyed or carried off, the female soon yelps again for a male;
but, in general, she rears only a single brood each season. Several
hens sometimes associate together, I believe for their mutual safety,
deposit their eggs in the same nest, and rear their broods together. I
once found three sitting on forty-two eggs. In such cases, the common
nest is always watched by one of the females, so that no Crow, Raven,
or perhaps even Pole-cat, dares approach it.

The mother will not leave her eggs, when near hatching, under any
circumstances, while life remains. She will even allow an enclosure to be
made around her, and thus suffer imprisonment, rather than abandon them.
I once witnessed the hatching of a brood of Turkeys, which I watched
for the purpose of securing them together with the parent. I concealed
myself on the ground within a very few feet, and saw her raise herself
half the length of her legs, look anxiously upon the eggs, cluck with
a sound peculiar to the mother on such occasions, carefully remove each
half-empty shell, and with her bill caress and dry the young birds, that
already stood tottering and attempting to make their way out of the
nest. Yes, I have seen this, and have left mother and young to better
care than mine could have proved,—to the care of their Creator and
mine. I have seen them all emerge from the shell, and, in a few moments
after, tumble, roll, and push each other forward, with astonishing and
inscrutable instinct.

Before leaving the nest with her young brood, the mother shakes herself
in a violent manner, picks and adjusts the feathers about her belly,
and assumes quite a different aspect. She alternately inclines her eyes
obliquely upwards and sideways, stretching out her neck, to discover hawks
or other enemies, spreads her wings a little as she walks, and softly
clucks to keep her innocent offspring close to her. They move slowly
along, and as the hatching generally takes place in the afternoon, they
frequently return to the nest to spend the first night there. After this,
they remove to some distance, keeping on the highest undulated grounds,
the mother dreading rainy weather, which is extremely dangerous to the
young, in this tender state, when they are only covered by a kind of
soft hairy down, of surprising delicacy. In very rainy seasons, Turkeys
are scarce, for if once completely wetted, the young seldom recover.
To prevent the disastrous effects of rainy weather, the mother, like
a skilful physician, plucks the buds of the spice-wood bush, and gives
them to her young.

In about a fortnight, the young birds, which had previously rested on
the ground, leave it and fly, at night, to some very large low branch,
where they place themselves under the deeply curved wings of their
kind and careful parent, dividing themselves for that purpose into two
nearly equal parties. After this, they leave the woods during the day,
and approach the natural glades or prairies, in search of strawberries,
and subsequently of dewberries, blackberries and grasshoppers, thus
obtaining abundant food, and enjoying the beneficial influence of the
sun's rays. They roll themselves in deserted ants' nests, to clear their
growing feathers of the loose scales, and prevent ticks and other vermin
from attacking them, these insects being unable to bear the odour of
the earth in which ants have been.

The young Turkeys now advance rapidly in growth, and in the month of
August are able to secure themselves from unexpected attacks of Wolves,
Foxes, Lynxes, and even Cougars, by rising quickly from the ground, by
the help of their powerful legs, and reaching with ease the highest
branches of the tallest trees. The young cocks shew the tuft on the
breast about this time, and begin to gobble and strut, while the young
hens pur and leap, in the manner which I have already described.

The old cocks have also assembled by this time, and it is probable that
all the Turkeys now leave the extreme north-western districts, to remove
to the Wabash, Illinois, Black River, and the neighbourhood of Lake Erie.

Of the numerous enemies of the Wild Turkey, the most formidable, excepting
man, are the Lynx, the Snowy Owl, and the Virginian Owl. The Lynx sucks
their eggs, and is extremely expert at seizing both young and old, which
he effects in the following manner. When he has discovered a flock of
Turkeys, he follows them at a distance for some time, until he ascertains
the direction in which they are proceeding. He then makes a rapid circular
movement, gets in advance of the flock, and lays himself down in ambush,
until the birds come up, when he springs upon one of them by a single
bound, and secures it. While once sitting in the woods, on the banks of
the Wabash, I observed two large Turkey-cocks on a log, by the river,
pluming and picking themselves. I watched their movements for a while,
when of a sudden one of them flew across the river, while I perceived
the other struggling under the grasp of a lynx. When attacked by the two
large species of Owl above mentioned, they often effect their escape in
a way which is somewhat remarkable. As Turkeys usually roost in flocks,
on naked branches of trees, they are easily discovered by their enemies,
the owls, which, on silent wing, approach and hover around them, for the
purpose of reconnoitering. This, however, is rarely done without being
discovered, and a single _cluck_ from one of the Turkeys announces to
the whole party the approach of the murderer. They instantly start upon
their legs, and watch the motions of the Owl, which, selecting one as its
victim, comes down upon it like an arrow, and would inevitably secure
the Turkey, did not the latter at that moment lower its head, stoop,
and spread its tail in an inverted manner over its back, by which action
the aggressor is met by a smooth inclined plane, along which it glances
without hurting the Turkey; immediately after which the latter drops to
the ground, and thus escapes, merely with the loss of a few feathers.

The Wild Turkeys cannot be said to confine themselves to any particular
kind of food, although they seem to prefer the pecan-nut and winter-grape
to any other, and, where these fruits abound, are found in the greatest
numbers. They eat grass and herbs of various kinds, corn, berries, and
fruit of all descriptions. I have even found beetles, tadpoles, and
small lizards in their crops.

Turkeys are now generally extremely shy, and the moment they observe a
man, whether of the red or white race, instinctively move from him. Their
usual mode of progression is what is termed walking, during which they
frequently open each wing partially and successively, replacing them
again by folding them over each other, as if their weight were too great.
Then, as if to amuse themselves, they will run a few steps, open both
wings and fan their sides, in the manner of the common fowl, and often
take two or three leaps in the air and shake themselves. Whilst searching
for food among the leaves or loose soil, they keep their head up, and
are unremittingly on the lookout; but as the legs and feet finish the
operation, they are immediately seen to pick up the food, the presence
of which, I suspect, is frequently indicated to them through the sense
of touch in their feet, during the act of scratching. This habit of
scratching and removing the dried leaves in the woods, is pernicious to
their safety, as the spots which they thus clear, being about two feet
in diameter, are seen at a distance, and, if fresh, shew that the birds
are in the vicinity. During the summer months they resort to the paths
or roads, as well as the ploughed fields, for the purpose of rolling
themselves in the dust, by which means they clear their bodies of the
ticks which at that season infest them, as well as free themselves of
the moschettoes, which greatly annoy them, by biting their heads.

When, after a heavy fall of snow, the weather becomes frosty, so as to
form a hard crust on the surface, the Turkeys remain on their roosts for
three or four days, sometimes much longer, which proves their capability
of continued abstinence. When near farms, however, they leave the roosts,
and go into the very stables and about the stacks of corn, to procure
food. During melting snow-falls, they will travel to an extraordinary
distance, and are then followed in vain, it being impossible for hunters
of any description to keep up with them. They have then a dangling and
straggling way of running, which, awkward as it may seem, enables them
to outstrip any other animal. I have often, when on a good horse, been
obliged to abandon the attempt to put them up, after following them for
several hours. This habit of continued running, in rainy or very damp
weather of any kind, is not peculiar to the Wild Turkey, but is common
to all gallinaceous birds. In America, the different species of Grouse
exhibit the same tendency.

In spring, when the males are much emaciated, in consequence of their
attentions to the females, it sometimes happens that, on plain and open
ground, they may be overtaken by a swift dog, in which case they squat,
and allow themselves to be seized, either by the dog, or the hunter
who has followed on a good horse. I have heard of such occurrences, but
never had the pleasure of seeing an instance of them.

Good dogs scent the Turkeys, when in large flocks, at extraordinary
distances,—I think I may venture to say half a mile. Should the dog be
well trained to this sport, he sets off at full speed, and in silence,
until he sees the birds, when he instantly barks, and pushing as much
as possible into the centre of the flock, forces the whole to take wing
in different directions. This is of great advantage to the hunter, for
should the Turkeys all go one way, they would soon leave their perches
and run again. But when they separate in this manner, and the weather
happens to be calm and lowering, a person accustomed to this kind of
sport finds the birds with ease, and shoots them at pleasure.

When Turkeys alight on a tree, it is sometimes very difficult to see
them, which is owing to their standing perfectly motionless. Should
you discover one, when it is down on its legs upon the branch, you may
approach it with less care. But if it is standing erect, the greatest
precaution is necessary, for should it discover you, it instantly flies
off, frequently to such a distance that it would be vain to follow.

When a Turkey is merely winged by a shot, it falls quickly to the ground
in a slanting direction. Then, instead of losing time by tumbling and
rolling over, as other birds often do when wounded, it runs off at such
a rate, that unless the hunter be provided with a swift dog, he may bid
farewell to it. I recollect coming on one shot in this manner, more than
a mile from the tree where it had been perched, my dog having traced
it to this distance, through one of those thick cane-brakes that cover
many portions of our rich alluvial lands near the banks of our western
rivers. Turkeys are easily killed if shot in the head, the neck, or the
upper part of the breast; but if hit in the hind parts only, they often
fly so far as to be lost to the hunter. During winter many of our _real_
hunters shoot them by moonlight, on the roosts, where these birds will
frequently stand a repetition of the reports of a rifle, although they
would fly from the attack of an owl, or even perhaps from his presence.
Thus sometimes nearly a whole flock is secured by men capable of using
these guns in such circumstances. They are often destroyed in great
numbers when most worthless, that is, early in the fall or autumn, when
many are killed in their attempt to cross the rivers, or immediately
after they reach the shore.

Whilst speaking of the shooting of Turkeys, I feel no hesitation in
relating the following occurrence, which happened to myself. While in
search of game, one afternoon late in autumn, when the males go together,
and the females are by themselves also, I heard the clucking of one of
the latter, and immediately finding her perched on a fence, made towards
her. Advancing slowly and cautiously, I heard the yelping notes of some
gobblers, when I stopped and listened in order to ascertain the direction
in which they came. I then ran to meet the birds, hid myself by the
side of a large fallen tree, cocked my gun, and waited with impatience
for a good opportunity. The gobblers continued yelping in answer to the
female, which all this while remained on the fence. I looked over the
log and saw about thirty fine cocks advancing rather cautiously towards
the very spot where I lay concealed. They came so near that the light
in their eyes could easily be perceived, when I fired one barrel, and
killed three. The rest, instead of flying off, fell a strutting around
their dead companions, and had I not looked on shooting again as murder
without necessity, I might have secured at least another. So I shewed
myself, and marching to the place where the dead birds were, drove away
the survivors. I may also mention, that a friend of mine shot a fine hen,
from his horse, with a pistol, as the poor thing was probably returning
to her nest to lay.

Should you, good-natured reader, be a sportsman, and now and then have
been fortunate in the exercise of your craft, the following incident,
which I shall relate to you as I had it from the mouth of an honest
farmer, may prove interesting. Turkeys were very abundant in his
neighbourhood, and, resorting to his corn fields, at the period when the
maize had just shot up from the ground, destroyed great quantities of
it. This induced him to swear vengeance against the species. He cut a
long trench in a favourable situation, put a great quantity of corn in
it, and having heavily loaded a famous duck gun of his, placed it so as
that he could pull the trigger by means of a string, when quite concealed
from the birds. The Turkeys soon discovered the corn in the trench, and
quickly disposed of it, at the same time continuing their ravages in the
fields. He filled the trench again, and one day seeing it quite black
with the Turkeys, whistled loudly, on which all the birds raised their
heads, when he pulled the trigger by the long string fastened to it. The
explosion followed of course, and the Turkeys were seen scampering off
in all directions, in utter discomfiture and dismay. On running to the
trench, he found nine of them extended in it. The rest did not consider
it expedient to visit his corn again for that season.

During spring, Turkeys are _called_, as it is termed, by drawing the air
in a particular way through one of the second joint bones of a wing of
that bird, which produces a sound resembling the voice of the female, on
hearing which the male comes up, and is shot. In managing this, however,
no fault must be committed, for Turkeys are quick in distinguishing
counterfeit sounds, and when _half civilized_ are very wary and cunning.
I have known many to answer to this kind of call, without moving a
step, and thus entirely defeat the scheme of the hunter, who dared not
move from his hiding-place, lest a single glance of the gobbler's eye
should frustrate all further attempts to decoy him. Many are shot when
at roost, in this season, by answering with a rolling gobble to a sound
in imitation of the cry of the Barred Owl.

But the most common method of procuring Wild Turkeys, is by means of
_pens_. These are placed in parts of the woods where Turkeys have been
frequently observed to roost, and are constructed in the following
manner. Young trees of four or five inches diameter are cut down, and
divided into pieces of the length of twelve or fourteen feet. Two of
these are laid on the ground parallel to each other, at a distance of
ten or twelve feet. Two other pieces are laid across the ends of these,
at right angles to them; and in this manner successive layers are added,
until the fabric is raised to the height of about four feet. It is then
covered with similar pieces of wood, placed three or four inches apart,
and loaded with one or two heavy logs to render the whole firm. This
done, a trench about eighteen inches in depth and width is cut under one
side of the cage, into which it opens slantingly and rather abruptly. It
is continued on its outside to some distance, so as gradually to attain
the level of the surrounding ground. Over the part of this trench within
the pen, and close to the wall, some sticks are placed so as to form
a kind of bridge about a foot in breadth. The trap being now finished,
the owner places a quantity of Indian corn in its centre, as well as in
the trench, and as he walks off drops here and there a few grains in the
woods, sometimes to the distance of a mile. This is repeated at every
visit to the trap, after the Turkeys have found it. Sometimes two trenches
are cut, in which case the trenches enter on opposite sides of the trap,
and are both strewn with corn. No sooner has a Turkey discovered the
train of corn, than it communicates the circumstance to the flock by a
cluck, when all of them come up, and searching for the grains scattered
about, at length come upon the trench, which they follow, squeezing
themselves one after another through the passage under the bridge. In
this manner the whole flock sometimes enters, but more commonly six or
seven only, as they are alarmed by the least noise, even the cracking
of a tree in frosty weather. Those within, having gorged themselves,
raise their heads, and try to force their way through the top or sides
of the pen, passing and repassing on the bridge, but never for a moment
looking down, or attempting to escape through the passage by which they
entered. Thus they remain until the owner of the trap arriving, closes
the trench, and secures his captives. I have heard of eighteen Turkeys
having been caught in this manner at a single visit to the trap. I have
had many of these pens myself, but never found more than seven in them
at a time. One winter I kept an account of the produce of a pen which
I visited daily, and found that seventy-six had been caught in it, in
about two months. When these birds are abundant, the owners of the pens
sometimes become satiated with their flesh, and neglect to visit the
pens for several days, in some cases for weeks. The poor captives thus
perish for want of food; for, strange as it may seem, they scarcely
ever regain their liberty, by descending into the trench, and retracing
their steps. I have, more than once, found four or five, and even ten,
dead in a pen, through inattention. Where Wolves or Lynxes are numerous,
they are apt to secure the prize before the owner of the trap arrives.
One morning, I had the pleasure of securing in one of my pens, a fine
Black Wolf, which, on seeing me, squatted, supposing me to be passing
in another direction.

Wild Turkeys often approach and associate with tame ones, or fight with
them, and drive them off from their food. The cocks sometimes pay their
addresses to the domesticated females, and are generally received by
them with great pleasure, as well as by their owners, who are well aware
of the advantages resulting from such intrusions, the half-breed being
much more hardy than the tame, and, consequently, more easily reared.

While at Henderson, on the Ohio, I had, among many other wild birds, a
fine male Turkey, which had been reared from its earliest youth under
my care, it having been caught by me when probably not more than two or
three days old. It became so tame that it would follow any person who
called it, and was the favourite of the little village. Yet it would never
roost with the tame Turkeys, but regularly betook itself at night to the
roof of the house, where it remained until dawn. When two years old, it
began to fly to the woods, where it remained for a considerable part of
the day, to return to the enclosure as night approached. It continued
this practice until the following spring, when I saw it several times
fly from its roosting place to the top of a high cotton-tree, on the
bank of the Ohio, from which, after resting a little, it would sail to
the opposite shore, the river being there nearly half a mile wide, and
return towards night. One morning I saw it fly off, at a very early hour,
to the woods, in another direction, and took no particular notice of the
circumstance. Several days elapsed, but the bird did not return. I was
going towards some lakes near Green River to shoot, when, having walked
about five miles, I saw a fine large gobbler cross the path before me,

Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) → online text (page 3 of 50)