Short-Tree Turkeys!

I was out in south central Texas last month, and a companion suggested that we might want to take off from business one morning and go wild turkey hunting. We had seen a lot of game in the area where we were staying, and I had no doubt that there were turkeys around, since there were so many deer. Inquiries amongst the natives proved we were right in our expectations. We were staying out in the country anyway, so we made plans to try it the last morning.

Alas, the last morning was just like the other three — bad foggy. An unusual weather system had settled in, and the fog was solid each day until at least ten. In my experience, turkeys don’t come down off the roost until fog lifts, so we never went out. But on the way home, I began to wonder: in country like we had been in, where do wild turkeys roost?

Obviously, in trees. Yet the trees we had seen in this country were no more than eight or ten feet high, looked like. I’m used to trees which are at least fifty feet high being typical turkey roosting trees. Of course, if there ain’t a fifty-foot tree available, I had sense enough to realize that a Texas wild turkey wasn’t going to walk to the Mississippi River to roost each evening. So, they have to roost in lower trees. That being the case, maybe we should have gone hunting that morning anyway, since we might could have snuck up and got a shot at a covey rise if we could have located some turkeys roosting somewhere.

Come to think of it, I have had one experience with turkeys roosting in low trees, but I flat didn’t expect it. Ronny James and I were hunting together that morning, and we eased in behind Dub’s House to the east side of that big brushy draw where my deer stand was located. I had seen turkeys there a lot during deer season, so I figured to leave Ronny on the east side calling, and I’d ease down the draw a quarter mile, and set up close to the canebrake.

In the pre-dawn darkness, I found the big sweetgum tree I had picked out for Ronny to blind in against, and tried to point out the features of the land. When he was settled in against the sweetgum, I pointed west. “I’d gonna slip down into the draw and go about a quarter, then cross onto that other ridge,” I explained. “If you shoot, I’ll come to you. Otherwise, I’ll be back about noon, okay?”

“Don’t you think it’s be better for you to slip down the side of the ridge, rather than going down into the bottom of the draw?” he asked. “It’s beginning to lighten up, and you might flush a gobbler away from us going thataway.”

I smiled my superior smile, from many more years of turkey hunting and hundreds more shells fired at gobblers than my old college roomie. “Naw. Turkeys like big trees to roost in, and there ain’t anything but ironwood thickets in the bottom of this brushy draw. That’ll give me cover to get to the other ridge.”

He shrugged, and I waved and eased down into the draw, then cut left and headed into the brush. Ironwoods grow in clumps, all twisty and not more than eight or ten feet tall, never more than as thick around as your upper arm. I wasn’t more than fifty yards into the thicket when the B-52 bombers struck.

At least that’s what I assumed they were, although I never stopped to consider why a B-52 raid had been ordered on my deer stand territory. When those big bombers hit, no one stops to think atall — you just run!

Running in the darkness through an ironwood thicket in complete panic ain’t as easy as you might assume. I bounced off springy branches, tripped over shoots, lost my lucky hunting hat, my cushion, call, shells, headnet, thermos, everything but my gun, which I knew I’d need when the bombing stopped.

Ronny said later that there must have been two dozen wild turkeys roosted in that ironwood thicket, and they flushed and flapped and floundered through the dark for five minutes before I finally came sprinting out and fell across the ridgeline. He said it wasn’t light enough for him to see if the close ones were legal.

Funny, he never heard the B-52s atall.

Pore As Job’s Turkey!

As is usual in many years, the early season turkeys were still flocked up, big gobblers with big gobblers, hens with hens, and young gobblers (“jakes”) with jakes. Yet every now and then, you get dealt a good hand.

I could hear the flock coming long before I saw them, and knew they were coming my way, so I didn’t call again, just got ready. They hove into view, but just as I had surmised from their calls, it was a flock of all hens, scratching through the leaves under the pecan trees on my ridge. I sat still as they worked closer and closer; I’m not sure what they had been feeding on the night before, but that flock actually got close enough for me to hear – excuse me – some of them, ah…breaking wind. I remember years ago reading about scientists being concerned about flatulence in cattle making holes in the ozone layer, or something like that. Those scientists would REALLY get worried if they knew that wild turkey hens have the same problem!

Then I noticed a much-darker bird toward the back of the flock, on the far side of it. Of all the luck, there was a gobbler with this flock of hens! My gun was across my lap, and I eased my thumb onto the safety.

The gobbler topped the ridge, and I could see a long beard; but this turkey had a peculiar gait: he seemed to be bobbing up and down. Well, I get accused of bouncing around a little when I’m singing, so maybe this tom was humming a tune as he fed: “Turkey In The Straw,” or more likely, “Just Before The Battle, Mother.” My gun was ready for action just as soon as I could get a clear shot within range.

Then the hens cleared out slightly between me and him, and I got a clear look that dumbfounded me: this gobbler had only one leg! He was hopping on one foot, balancing himself with the other wing, just like it was a crutch!

I watched with growing interest and sympathy, my gun forgotten. The old boy, for he was an older gobbler, by the length of his beard, was getting along very well with his handicap. He’d use his beak to sweep away leaves that he normally would have scratched away, then peck up the pecans or paw-paw seeds in a circle around where he stood, then he’d hop to another spot and work it over. The hens seemed to watch over him without being overly motherly, but it was obvious that a couple of hens were acting as lookouts in case some predator might be following the flock.

The crippled gobbler wasn’t as well filled-out as one would expect in a woods rich with mast, but he wasn’t as proverbially “Pore as Job’s Turkey,” though he’d had a dose of Job’s Luck. What had gotten the other leg? Now he was close enough for me to see that it was missing from the drumstick down, not just the foot. Did a wolf or bobcat ambush the tom, chomping down on a leg, only to have the gobbler wrench free, leaving just enough for the predator to fix turkey-foot soup? Had a nervous hunter called up the tom, then shot low? Maybe he had stepped into the steel jaws of a set trap, and had twisted his leg off to escape. Whatever, it had obviously healed over, for the gobbler was healthy, and the wingtip he used as a crutch was worn down from long use.

Twice in my life I have gone into the turkey woods on crutches, and a couple of other times with a walking cane. Twice I have been faced with the prospect of never walking again. It was with a growing admiration that I watched this gobbler hobble within gun range. The old boy was staying with the hens for company, because another gobbler would have made short work of him in a fight. If you’ve never heard a wild turkey fight, it’s a loud scrap: a dozen other males gather around and cheer for their favorite while a couple of toms go after it hammer and tongs! Any country boy who has been flounced by a turkey can testify to the power of their wings, spurs, and beaks. One can hear a wild turkey fight a quarter mile away in the woods.

The one-legged gobbler hopped out from behind a big pecan tree, 25 yards away. I never raised my gun. This turkey was too good a man for me to mess with him. He fed on across the ridge with the hens, and once stood erect to flap and half-gobble.

I saluted him, too. I hope Job’s Turkey lives to be 105!

Setting Up (Or Down) For Turkeys

Here it is turkey season once again, the humbling season for most good hunters, sometimes with aforethought. After a half-century of hunting wild turkeys, I’m going to have to change my techniques. I think I’ve got to learn to set down to shoot turkeys.

Understand that wild turkeys DO something to your old Uncle Bob! I have fired well over a thousand rounds of shotgun shells at turkeys in my time, which averages out firing over 20 rounds a year at turkeys. While I have killed close to 250 gobblers, the average of four shells per turkey is somewhat misleading, for I really have at times killed a turkey with a single shot, like you see on TV. Plus, there have been several times when I killed two birds with one shot, unintentionally. Not that I haven’t tried to do that on purpose, it just hasn’t ever worked when I wanted it to. Anyhoo, my average is closer to six shots per turkey than four shots, and there were several years when I actually averaged over seven shells for each gobbler I brought home.

Point here is, I knew when I went to the woods that if I got a shot at a gobbler, it invariably would not be a fatal encounter unless the tom could be kept in gun range for another volley. Therefore, my set-up technique involved leaning against a big tree or large log that protected my backside (turkeys have a history of ambushing me!), sticking up a few paw-paw branches in front of me to break my outline, and removing any obstacles to foot-racing from the immediate area. I am not a hurdler. Matter of fact, the paw-paw branch blind needs to be light enough to run through with ease.

When the turkey is called into range (and closer is better, for me) I wait until he goes behind a tree within 25 yards before raising my gun, and when I do pull the trigger from that sitting position, I charge! Going from a sitting position to a dead run, with a pump shotgun at port arms, requires a great deal of supple effort and coordination.

I recall one Opening Weekend when it snowed six inches the night before and our camouflage jumpsuits stood out like sore thumbs, so we all took bedsheets to the woods as camo, tucked over us like barber cloths as we sat against our trees. I called up seven gobblers together that morning, who all took turns strutting and gobbling as they approached from a half-mile away. I was shaking like a leaf by the time they got within range, then I shot, jumped up, and charged. The bedsheet wound itself around my legs within two steps, and not only did I not get a single turkey, I broke an antique turkey call Mr. Floyd Hughes had given Big Robert years before.

Several years I have gone to the turkey woods with a wounded knee, which seriously limits one’s ability to rise charging with the initial shot. Once I crippled a big gobbler just enough that he couldn’t quite get out of gun range, despite my jumping up, shooting, falling down routine. That one took about nine shots, I believe.

There was one gobbler whom I caught a glimpse of in full strut as he approached through a deep draw. I lost sight of him, but had my gun up and ready when suddenly his old red head stuck up from the edge of the draw, like a submarine periscope. I dropped the barrel a couple of inches and fired, just as he ducked back down. My shot hit the ground and the brink of that draw exploded like a claymore mine. As usual, I was charging as I pumped, and when I hit the edge of the draw, the gobbler was still crouched down, eyes closed, completely untouched by number six shot, though obviously shell-shocked. It still took me seven shots to collect him!

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours working on the lawn mower, and noticed that my knees just don’t have the suppleness left to quickly charge turkeys after the shot. Numerous cartilage and ligament tears, operations, busted kneecaps, a broken thighbone and perhaps even old age, Lyme Disease, and the Greenhouse Effect have all taken their toll. Rising is an effort, even done slowly. There’s no question that I’m going to have to change my turkey hunting techniques.

Or my ammo: are claymores legal? What about blookers? Maybe I can hire an assistant to chase for me. Or take in an apprentice who wants to learn from The Master!

The Gun May Be Just An Excuse To Be In The Woods!

A friend who ain’t from Down Heah told me he’d gone turkey hunting all by his lonesome recently, his first time to try wild turkeys. Where he’s from, they might have lots of turkeys, if turkeys ate rocks and sand, and roosted on cacti, but you know what Big Bumpy used to say about if: “If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his behind.” Bill didn’t have any luck with turkeys, but he observed, “It was sure nice to be out there in the woods before daylight, to hear the birds wake up, owls hooting, and woodpeckers pecking. Good to be in God’s Great Outdoors!”

I have written often that the gun in hand is merely an excuse to be in the woods, for many hunters. Scotty Tabb was telling me about his last week’s hunt, when a baby bobcat stalked up on his turkey decoy, and Robert Dean once wrote about a hawk attacking his fake hen. Son Adam came in excited after one whole morning in a deer stand, and couldn’t wait to tell me: “I saw a flying squirrel!” The first panther I ever saw was before good daylight when I was headed toward a gobbling turkey on Montgomery Island, and another was on Woodstock Island as I sat in a deer stand in a snowstorm. On none of those occasions did the hunter score that day; nor did he care. But we’ll always remember those events.

The only big-time big-snake duel I ever witnessed was on a turkey hunt, when two large moccasins were, essentially, arm-wrestling for the favor of a lady cottonmouth awaiting the winner. Weird! The only reason I bring that up is that the last couple of stories on snakes generated a lot of feedback, and I need to say first that the Texas Rattler Round-up lasts more than one day, and second, that a young man sent me pictures of a north Mississippi Moccasin Round-up in which they killed 280 vipers over a weekend. That discourages new turkey hunters!

One morning I was sitting against one of those huge pecan trees behind Dub’s House on Woodstock, and heard something approaching in the dry leaves behind me. Thinking “Turkey Gobbler!” I eased my head around the tree, French Gun ready, to see a large copperhead snake coming through the woods lickety-split. Well, as lickety-split as a snake can go, anyway. He went right by my tree and down across the draw, leaving me wondering what the heck was chasing him. That thought ruined the rest of my weekend hunt!

Betsy had a red fox jump over a log almost into her lap once on a deer hunt, and another time watched a bobcat wash itself and curl up for a nap almost under her stand. I spent all one morning in a turkey blind watching a momma squirrel moving her brood of about five teentsie (what do you call a baby squirrel: a kit?) young’uns from a tree about ten yards to my right to a new den tree about thirty yards to my left. Her path took her less than ten feet from me, and if a turkey gobbler had strutted up, I would not have dared shoot, for fear of disturbing her.

Big Robert was about as serious a hunter as I’ve ever known, but one afternoon when I eased up to where he sat on a log ostensibly calling turkeys, he grinned at my low whistle and beckoned me to come in quietly, indicating he was watching game. When I crawled to his log, he pointed out two raccoons on a big sycamore limb. “They’ve been making love all afternoon,” he whispered. “I feel almost guilty for watching!” Had he seen a turkey, or even looked for one? No.

In almost that same spot a year or so later, I sat in the Hammer Stand and observed as fine a job of coaching as I’ll ever see: a momma bobcat positioned her half-grown kitten on a log ten yards behind me, then circled and bounced a big canecutter rabbit out of a brushtop. The rabbit went straight to the log, and the kitten jumped it gamely, getting a mouthful of rabbit head, but the bunny was bigger than the bobcat! It was a classic fight to the finish, but the little cat won!

Hunting deer one afternoon, I was privileged to watch a coyote hide in a clump of grass with just the end of his tail sticking out. A hawk had been circling the open field for some time, and the coyote began twitching the end of his tail as the big bird got closer. Sure enough, the hawk made a dive for what it must have assumed was a rat or rabbit, and the coyote just barely mistimed his own jump, missing a planned hawk supper, except for a few breast feathers that drifted down.

Yeah, Bill is right. It’s good to be out in God’s Great Outdoors. Don’t let the gun slow you down!

Late Season Deer, Early Season Turkey

Some of us were cussing and discussing the recent weather last month. One guy was a duck hunter who depended on the rain for water holes to hunt on, and on prolonged freezing weather up Nawth to send ducks down here to light on the potholes so he could shoot at them. He wasn’t happy: “We ain’t had a duck season in four or five years!” he grouched. I thought it had been longer than that.

The next guy was a fisherman almost exclusively, but he declared that the fish weren’t biting even though the weather at the time was in the sixties and the water levels were about right in the oxbow lakes he frequented. “It ain’t hardly worth going these days,” though everyone knew he’d be fishing that next weekend.

Another guy was a deer hunter, and complained of mosquitoes driving him out of the woods the day before. “Heck, if I’da killed a deer yesterday, it’d have spoilt before I got it back to camp!” he observed.

This is an aside, but in spite of what some clubs require, I’ve always field dressed (“gutted”) my deer as soon as they hit the ground, and I’ve always had great tasting venison. Some folks will shoot a deer at 8:00 o’clock, drag it out to the road, wave down a jeep coming in for lunch, load the deer up and take it to camp, hang it on the skinning rack, eat lunch, take a nap, then field dress the deer in mid-afternoon. Then they say, “I give all my deer meat away, ‘cause it tastes gamey!” Lordee, the finest corn-fed steer in the world would taste gamey if you left the innards in it for six hours after you killed it!

Then the deer hunter stated, “I’m tempted to quit hunting deer and go to scouting for wild turkeys now, although I know it’s ‘way too early for the turkeys to be gobbling and working to a call.”

Not necessarily. Late one deer season it had turned cold again and I was on one of the River islands at daylight one morning, shivering up against a sweetgum tree on the side of a brushy draw. Somewhere south of me a hound bayed, and moments later, I saw the gleam of antlers coming up the draw. A buck broke clear of the brush and stopped as he topped the far ridge, about 50 yards away. He was east of me, and the sun was just rising beyond him. He posed, looking first over his shoulder, then toward me, then across the ridge he’d stopped on. He made a beautiful picture, his breath rising in frosty mist that shone like diamonds as the sun’s rays gleamed on his wide 8-point antlers. I had a mental picture that I’ll never forget as I pulled the trigger.

The 30/06 boomed, the buck collapsed neck-shot, and a wild turkey double-gobbled! Just like that: one, two, three!

My ears always ring after I fire a rifle, so I thought maybe they were playing tricks on me. “Was that a turkey?” I wondered, as I stooped to pick up my seat cushion and coffee thermos. Just to check, I called back: “Yawk, yawk, yawk!”

I started across the draw to field dress my trophy, and halfway across, durned if the gobbler didn’t answer me, with another double gobble. He was also east of me, toward the sun, so I slowed and peeked over the ridge before I topped it. Once more I yelped – I call with my mouth – and once more the turkey gobbled back. I chuckled, set my cushion and Thermos down, leaned my rifle against a persimmon sapling, took my coat off, and pulled out my scabbard knife. It only took a minute to perform the first couple of you-can’t-write-it-in-the-paper rituals involved in gutting a deer, then I rolled the buck over to slit him open from stem to stern. Steam rose from the cut as I knelt astraddle the deer to cut around the diaphragm, then I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye.

That crazy gobbler strutted up to me out of the sun, as the steam from the opened-up buck mingled with the frost of my own breath. Had the gun been closer, I might have taken home double trophies. I stayed still and yelped softly at him, provoking another double-gobble in a full strut. He came within ten yards, then the hound bayed again back down in the draw and spooked the turkey.

It was a great morning – don’t ever try to predict what a wild turkey will do!

Advice From One’s Elders

A younger friend of mine, who is also a dedicated turkey hunter, asked me the other day for some advice. Matter of fact, he started out the conversation with, “Uncle Bob, I need your advice on something….”

Glory! It’s been so long since anyone younger (of course, most of the world’s population is younger’n I am now!) asked me for any advice, that I’m having trouble remembering when the last time was. Younger people these days and times tend to regard their elders as proper things to have around in their particular place, like at church or a civic club meeting. They might ask an old codger to “Tell us what it was like before cell phones were invented,” or “before computerization.” But ask for advice? Opinions, maybe. Not advice.

I remember a quote from Mark Twain: “When I was 14, my Old Man was so stupid, I could hardly stand to be around him, but when I got to be 21, I was amazed at how much the old fellow had learned in 7 short years!” The same theory holds true today, but the age ranges are now from 14 to probably 60. “When I got to be 60, I finally appreciated what my Daddy told me about taking care of my knees!”

So, I straightened a few kinks out of my back, sucked my belly in, and stood tall as I could as I asked, “Sure, what do you need to know?” How’s that for starting right out with the impression that I could help the young man?

“The turkeys on my club don’t seem to gobble like they used to. How do you hunt wild turkeys when you can’t hear them gobble?”

Glory be twice! There weren’t many questions this young man could have asked that I’d have been qualified to answer (though I probably would have produced an answer anyway!), but he had hit the nail on the head. Here was something I knew something about!

See, I’ve been hard of hearing for all my life (don’t tell my choir), so to be able to turkey hunt, I had to have a different strategy that most hunters. Matter of fact, I combined the advice of two elders myownself: Mr. Jimmy Rodgers and The Brown Max. Their wisdom was: “find a place where it looks like a turkey might walk by, get hid and be still like if the turkey saw you first he was going to shoot you, and call about every 20 minutes.”

Now, I haven’t killed but maybe 250 turkeys in my life, but I have fired over 1000 shotgun shells at turkeys in nearly a half century. Wild turkeys do something to me. They have a gris-gris on me. Deer don’t. I have killed over 400 deer, and I bet I haven’t missed more than two dozen in my life. Buck fever isn’t a problem, but gobbler fever definitely is!

Matter of fact, this same young man remarked later in the conversation that, “I read THE FLAMNG TURKEY and couldn’t figure out how you could miss a gobbler, because I never had. Then after I finished the book, I missed the next five turkeys I called up!”

And now he was asking for advice? Anyway, I gave him the same that I had learned a generation before from Mr. Jimmy and Brown Max. Told him that I reckoned that for every turkey one calls up that you see, there are at least a couple more that come in but you never know they were there. They sneak in, make you, and leave you. So, if I’ve fired 1000 rounds at probably 750 turkeys, I must have had 2000 turkeys within gun range who came to my call. I never heard a peep out of over 90% of them. They might have gobbled, but I didn’t hear it. Therefore, I obviously don’t agree with the hunters who never hunt because they don’t hear a gobble. Hey, the turkeys are still there somewhere! Stay in the woods.

I even remember a biologist’s theory that we were killing off the birds who had the gene that makes them gobble, so the surviving turkeys are the silent type.

You may have noticed that I have referred to wild turkeys as persons; here’s another bit of advice: “If they gave turkeys guns, men would quit hunting turkeys!”

Pointing Out Turkey Gobblers!

Back in the Good Old Days, we were permitted to shoot “Jakes,” which is the term most of us use for young turkey gobblers. Since the Mississippi River bottomland woods I usually hunted in was knee-high in bull nettle by early spring when the season started, I rarely looked for a beard on my turkeys. If a head stuck up out of the bull nettle, and it was red, that turkey was going to get shot at.

The which did not necessarily mean a fatal encounter for the turkey, because I have long been famous for missing wild turkeys – there’s even a book to that effect! They do something to me, and although in my lifetime I have honestly fired over 1000 shotgun rounds at turkeys, I can only admit to bringing maybe 250 back to camp. I used to take a box of shells (that was back when there were 25 shells in a box!) for a weekend turkey hunt on Woodstock or Montgomery Island.

Howsomever, the state Game & Fish people decided a few years ago that young turkeys needed to be spared to grow in statue and wisdom, so now a hunter has to examine (on the hoof, now: we ain’t talking ground-checking!) the bird’s breast before firing, to see if it has a long enough beard to legal.

Therefore, when a veteran turkey hunter is taking a neophyte along for the hunt, care must be taken to instruct the rookie on what comprises legal game. Sometimes that ain’t enough either. I once took a neighbor with me, and we were seated against a big sycamore, me facing south, Rick facing west, which let me cover to the right shooting left-handed, and him cover to the left shooting right-handed. I’d been calling a little over a half-hour when I heard, “Psst! Psst!” and cocked an ear to hear him ask softly, “Is-that-a-turkey?”

This was a farm boy, so turkeys had been a part of his life forever. So I assumed that whatever he had sighted was far off, and started scanning the woods. “Not out there!” he hissed. “Right here!” Sure enough, a big gobbler stood in the logging road, thirty yards away – but he didn’t stand there long, he took flight!

“So, that was a turkey, huh?” Rick mused.

“What did you think it was, a penguin?!” I snorted. He later said he meant to ask if it was a gobbler, legal to shoot. Sure.

I took my bride with me one time, and had a turkey coming, gobbling every other step, so we were ready. I thought. When he stepped into a clearing in range, Betsy exclaimed, “Isn’t his head red?!!” Out loud! As the big gobbler spun to take flight, she calmly noted, “Wonder how much he weighs?” Out loud, again!

We ought to introduce our children and grandchildren to blood sports as soon as possible, and here again, we must take pains to describe beforehand what turkeys look like, how they approach, and which ones are legal game. Oftimes, the youngster has much better vision than the adult anyway, so the extra pair of eyes is really appreciated, and the kid is urged to watch carefully and report movement to the adult, so that the elderly one may be aware of what’s out of peripheral vision.

The youngster in question was only five years old, but had hunted deer and doves with granddaddy, so a spring turkey hunt was a natural progression. They got to the woods and hooted, and a gobbler answered immediately from his roost close to a small field. The hunters snuk within 150 yards of the roost tree, and the adult stuck up two hen decoys in the edge of the field, then blinded himself and the boy nearby, sticking up branches before them. He loaded his gun as the dawn came, picked up his call, and clucked. Across the field, the turkey double-gobbled, and sailed out of the tree, landing in a half strut right before the decoys! The youngster jumped to his feet, pointed, and shouted, “THERE’S ONE NOW!”

The rest of the day, the man complimented the kid on how well he could see and identify a wild turkey gobbler, as he should have. But they didn’t see another.

Watch for Wading Owls!

I told you about Stoney, the half-grown barred owl Joe and I rescued from an automobile accident (actually, he flew into the side of Joe’s pickup) with the help of Dr. Richard Griffin, the late vet who was allergic to feathers. After almost a month of recuperation, helped along by antibiotics for the first week or so, Stoney faked me out during a morning feeding session, and proved that he was healthy enough to be released into the wild again.

For the next week or so, he hung around the house, probably hoping for more feeding or scratching sessions. He’d gotten addicted to having the back of his head scratched, during which he’d keep bending his head backwards into the scratching fingers until he was facing plumb the opposite way – from over the top! I knew an owl could turn his head slap around sideways, but had never known (or read either!) that he could turn it backwards from straight up. He loved being scratched!

He apparently formed another habit: late in the afternoon I’d carry him in his large milk-crate cage to the Swimming Hole with me. I kept a metal stool out there that I’d submerge in the shallow end, then place Stoney’s cage on it. He had a brick in there to stand on, and I’d ease the cage into the water to where just the top of the brick was out. Stoney would drink his fill, and snatch at dragonfly nymphs that came out right at dusk. It was a regular ritual for the two of us.

The first few times he came back, I saw him perched above the patio, where we usually fed him venison or dove gizzards (it being dove season when we hosted him). Then I heard him on several nights, hooting his low “Who-who-who cooks for you” calls from the pecan tree outside our bedroom window, or from the dead locust tree in the persimmon grove. One night he was being regularly answered by another owl from the ditchbank at the back of the yard, and so I knew Stoney must be reaching puberty.

With all our young wild pets over the years – a dozen possums, half-dozen coons, four screech owls, etc – we’ve had a hard and fast rule: we’d turn them loose when they reached puberty. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a coon, possum, screech owl, or teenaged boy – when they fall in love, you can’t tell them another doggone thing, so you might as well turn them aloose!

Obviously, we had turned Stoney loose in the nick of time, and I figured we’d never see him again, at least, to know it was our Stoney we were looking at.

Then our neighbor came over one day, a full month after the owl’s release. “I just saw Stoney!” he cried.

“How’d you know it was him?” we asked Jim, hoping it was so, but doubting proof.

“Well, I drove up to my pond, and there was something over at the shallow end, just standing there. So I eased up closer to see what the heck it was – a new type heron, or something, I figured – and durned if it wasn’t an almost-grown barred owl, sitting there in water up over his legs just as calm as you please! Where else except Brownspur would you expect to find an owl wading around in the pond?”

Had to have been Stoney, we reckoned. He’s obviously adapted to a new method of feeding, and my bet is that the dragonfly population will decline drastically here at Brownspur for the next few years. What will his kids end up doing – living on tadpoles and minnows?

Oh, No!! What about our neighbors to the south, who have catfish ponds? They’re having enough trouble now with cormorants – what if they find out I’ve adapted the owl population to wading in ponds and eating the inhabitants thereof?

Will the Brownspur owls then begin to grow longer legs, like flamingos or whooping cranes, to further adapt to their feeding places? Will their beaks get longer? Where are the evolution theorists when we really need them?! Will their majestic hoots become just loud gargles? We need help out here, you biologists!

So, if in the near future you spot a barred owl wading in your fishpond – well, offer to scratch behind his head. If he likes that, it’s got to be Stoney, or one of his progeny!

Stoney, The Hard-Headed Owl

Joe was somewhat wary when he called. He’d had a large bird fly into the side of his pickup on the way back from the airport Monday night, and had gone back the next afternoon to try to locate it. “It’s an owl, and he’s just sitting there on the side of the road. Do you think you could catch it? I hate for it to just die out there!”

I done my duty and informed him that, actually, the law is that we were supposed to leave it there to die. Matter of fact, we weren’t even supposed to put the poor thing out of its misery – legally, we were to let it die slowly and painfully.

Having done my duty, I then declared, “Heck, yeah! Let’s go get him!”

To cover ourselves, Joe called the late Dr. Richard Griffin, a nearby veterinarian, who had one of those Federal Animal Rehabilitation Licenses. “Bring him on,” he invited. “I’m the only vet around who will fool with these things – and I’m the only vet around who is allergic to feathers!” He agreed with me, however, that recovery was unlikely.

Cage and heavy gloves at hand, Joe drove us to a lonely stretch of woods and parked. “He’s somewhere close, if he’s still alive,” he declared. I quickly spied a half-grown barred owl sitting down in the ditch by a stand of ragweeds. He didn’t protest as I donned gloves and gently lifted him up and into the two-milk-crate cage we fashioned.

Dr. Griffin pronounced him apparently unbroken, as far as wings, legs, and keel were concerned. His left eye was cloudy, slightly bloody, and he seemed sore on his right wing and side, nipping at my hand as I stroked him on the right. The vet prescribed a week of antibiotics, and asked us to bring him some owl food. Chicken livers and gizzards to start with, then live mice or lizards later. “Set your traps now,” he advised.

A week later, Stoney was recovering enough to be released to our care here at Brownspur. Since we’ve raised or rehabbed (under Dr. Griffin’s supervision) two full-grown hawks, a great horned owl, and five screech owls, in addition to a dozen possums, half a dozen coons, shrews, snakes, and many other critters, we had experience. Son Adam and I made Stoney comfortable in a larger cage, and thawed venison to feed him. Then dove season opened, and we saved all the hearts and gizzards for him. He loved the gizzards!

Like all the other injured birds we’ve nursed, Stoney seemed to instinctively know that we weren’t going to hurt him. Though he’d pop his beak threateningly, we’ve raised enough owls to realize this was but a part of owl language. The only one to get hurt was me, naturally. When I transferred him to the smaller cage to go to the Swimming Hole with me one afternoon, one of his toes slid between my ring and finger, and I didn’t know it until I tried to put him down, and apparently bent his toe. An owl’s toe is actually a talon, and when he flexed it, it went all the way to the bone. My finger bone, we’re talking! I bled like a stuck hog, slid my ring off, and went for the iodine and a bandaid. Stoney seemed contrite when I returned and we went to swim.

This was his favorite time of day. I’d set his cage on a stool, so that just the top of the brick he stood on was out of the water. He’d drink his fill, and stare fixedly at the hummingbirds working the trumpet vine flowers at poolside. Right at dusk, the dragonfly nymphs would hover nearby, and I’d catch some to feed him. Joe would come visit, as would Jim and the neighbors, bringing dove gizzards.

Adam discovered his love for being stroked. We’d gently scratch him on the back of the neck, and he’d close his eyes and begin to tilt his head straight back, until he was actually looking the opposite way! We knew an owl could turn his head completely around from either side, but didn’t know they could do it going “over the top.” If he’d been a cat, he’d have purred when we did that for him.

We intended to release him that Sunday afternoon three weeks later, and had alerted Joe, Richard, and the neighbors, but Stoney had his own agenda. As I was feeding him that morning, he dropped a piece of venison, and when I reached down to the bottom of the cage to pick it up, he sprang past me to freedom. He flapped across the patio to light on the antlers hanging from the Store (our guesthouse) porch, swung there for a few minutes, then flew to the bay magnolia. From there he soared to the top of the cypress, and that’s where he was when I left for Sunday school, thankful to have hosted him.

Elijah Bud (got to read to the end, now)

ELIJAH BUD
That was the name I knew him by. He was impressive, about six feet tall, when he wasn’t lying down, and built heavy, but certainly with no pot gut atall on him. He had a bit of an attitude when teased, but who doesn’t? He was extraordinarily thin-skinned when we first met, but got over it quickly when our friendship warmed up.

He wasn’t really black, but was pretty dark brown. His eyes had a faint yellowish cast to them, and he had a habit of sticking his tongue out at you when frustrated. He was fast, too, though he had a deceptive speed; just when you thought you were catching up, he’d suddenly spurt forward in a dash for the finish line.

We called him Elijah, because his Coming was prophesied by the Ex-Tex. We added Bud later, because of his drinking preference, though it made him ill-humored quickly. Elijah Bud couldn’t hold his liquor very well atall.

I’m not sure how long Elijah Bud had been hanging around our house before I came home unexpectedly and caught him sunning on the patio. I was pretty sure he hadn’t been drinking at the time, but he was almost comatose, nevertheless. Of course, I don’t know much about drinking, myself; you can pour it all back in the horse, far as I’m concerned.

At any rate, his condition led to his obviously being thin-skinned, as mentioned, so he didn’t get to stay inside at first. Later, we suspected that he had at times snuk in and enjoyed the warmth of our bathtub, but at the time, we had no way knowing that. We fixed him up a place to sleep it off on the guesthouse porch, and a neighbor who claimed to know something about needing a little “hair of the dog” brought him a friendly bedtime libation that first night. Actually, our own son seemed to know a great deal about that condition, too. As did the Ex-Tex, when I got around to mentioning a prophecy fulfilled.

That next morning, a raw egg was prescribed for our guest, and that did a lot to restore him to good humor, for a while. Adam really teased him a little more than was necessary later on. It probably didn’t help that the ladies around the house didn’t cotton to him atall, even after I made an attempt to get them closer together. Matter of fact, Betsy even threatened to take a stick to him if he showed up like that again. And Joanna simply withdrew frostily from his presence, which wasn’t entirely ladylike, I felt. Actually, the other guys who weren’t from Brownspur expressed their preference for keeping their distance, too. In retrospect, I guess Elijah Bud did have reason to be upset.

He stayed around a week or so, and actually got relatively clean and sober before he left. I meant to surprise the Ex-Tex by bringing Elijah Bud for a visit to the Sin Den, but I guess our example had spurred a true repentance in him. When I announced my intention to take him to see the Prophet who had foretold his coming, he mulled it over in silence, but took his departure sometime during the night. Adam and I hunted all over for him. Though all our vehicles were still in the driveway, we were certain he had not left on foot. However, he disappeared without a trace, not even a thank-you note.

Elijah Bud wasn’t like us, you see. He had a different raising. He was a different religion, that was obvious from the start. He was also a different skin color. While I claim to be fairly unprejudiced, and have tried to raise my kids to be thataway, I got the impression that Elijah Bud didn’t like our company, in spite of our efforts on his behalf. Was it our skin color? I like to think it was not.

He was pretty low-down, actually, when I stop to think about it. We tried to make friends, but in the long run, he took our food and hospitality, and left without even a word of thanks. But then, his type has always had that reputation, deservedly or not. Will his actions make us prejudiced against his kind from now on? I suspect we’ve all had a deep seated dislike for those with his type skin. Obviously, the ladies felt that way right from the start. At least, we menfolks tried to meet him halfway at first.

Well, as far as we know, he didn’t steal anything when he left Brownspur, if he left. He might be still hiding somewhere around, sneaking in for a quick lay in the bathtub again. I reckon we’ll have to start locking the doors at Brownspur. Betsy even declared that we should consider keeping a loaded gun close by, in case Elijah Bud shows back up.

But then, she’s always had a prejudice toward his kind, especially six-foot chicken snakes who are shedding their skin on her patio! Oh well, he seemed to like Jim’s beer!