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Bagging wild turkey: This prized bird well worth wait

Two wild turkeys walk among pine trees at an exclusive outdoors club near Chiefland in North Florida.

BILL SERNE | Times (2005)

Two wild turkeys walk among pine trees at an exclusive outdoors club near Chiefland in North Florida.

For most Floridians, a turkey dinner starts with a trip to the grocery store. But for some, the traditional Thanksgiving feast begins deep in the woods on a cool November morning.

Florida's resident wild turkey, the Osceola, is a particularly wary quarry prized by hunters, some of whom come from all over the world just to bag this legendary bird.

One of five U.S. species of wild turkey (the others being the Eastern, Rio Grande, Merriam and Gould's), the Osceola is found only in certain areas of the state, which makes it all the more challenging to hunt.

"These birds are not that smart," said Tony Young of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "But they do have incredible eyesight and exceptional hearing. They see and hear you long before you see and hear them."

They're also really fast.

Paranoid prey

Perhaps the wild turkey's greatest survival mechanism is its uncanny sense that something is always out to get it.

"They are always on the lookout for things trying to eat them," Young explained. "Foxes, bobcats, coyotes … they love turkey. So they see anything moving and they high-tail it right out of there."

This is why turkey hunters have learned to blend in with the surroundings. Most are covered in camouflage from head to toe, and it is common for hunters to set up elaborate turkey blinds in which they sit motionless for hours on end.

"Turkey hunting is more interactive than other forms of hunting," said Young, who writes a column for the FWC called Outta' the Woods. "The best way to get a turkey to come close is to call them in."

Big brood

By the dawn of the 20th century, U.S. wild turkey populations had been hunted to the brink of extinction. But in 1937, the wild turkey, the bird founding father Benjamin Franklin suggested as the national symbol instead of the bald eagle, got some relief through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act.

A tax on guns and ammo helped pay for a variety of conservation and habitat protection programs, and wild turkeys began to recover. Today, there are more than 7 million wild turkeys in the United States, compared with a historic low of less than 30,000 during the Great Depression.

Deep-fried delicacy

If you are fortunate enough to get a wild turkey for your table this Thanksgiving, don't treat it like the store-bought variety.

"These birds are lean," said Young. "If you are not careful, you can dry out the meat."

He advises deep frying, but like turkey hunting, this is a tricky process that requires close attention.

"The meat stays moist," Young said. "Deep-fried turkey … there's nothing like it."

Contact Terry Tomalin at ttomalin@sptimes.com

7 million

Estimated wild turkey population in the U.S.

3 million

Americans who say they hunt wild turkey.

Far fewer

Americans who actually catch a wild turkey.

25 mph

Maximum running speed of a wild turkey

55 mph

Maximum flying speed of a wild turkey

4,000

years ago

When Native Americans are thought to have started making turkey callers — out of turkey wings.

$12.99

About the least you can pay for a mass-produced turkey caller today.

Hunting season

Fall turkey season opens Dec. 4 and closes Jan. 30 in much of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. But in South Florida, the season opened Saturday and closes Jan. 2. In most of Central and North Florida, it opened Nov. 6 and will close on Jan. 2. For a complete list of regulations and a map of the state's hunting zones, go to www.MyFWC.com/hunting.

Bagging wild turkey: This prized bird well worth wait 11/21/10 [Last modified: Sunday, November 21, 2010 7:16pm]
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