National Geographic : 1936 Oct
GAME BIRDS OF PRAIRIE, FOREST. AND TUNDRA* BY ALEXANDER WETMORE Assistant Secretary, Smithsonian Institution THOUGH dawn was approaching, the blackness of night still lay over the wooded mountains of eastern Tennes see. With a mountaineer companion, I came quietly along a little path where near-by trees and bowlders were mere shad ows against the sky, to the shelter of a windfall beside an opening in the forest. We seemed so isolated from familiar things that my hand, resting on the rough bark of our sheltering log, brought a reas suring touch of reality in a world hidden in dim obscurity. The air was cold with the damp, penetrating chill of early spring. A gray light that came slowly among the trees strengthened gradually until the wooded slopes about were dimly visible. Color touched the edge of distant clouds. At that moment we heard low calls and then a rapid gobbling that made me quicken with tense excitement. Wild turkeys, traced to their roosting trees the night before, were coming to the ground. My friend, skilled in woodland lore, with his turkey call began low notes in answer. As the birds continued, his imitations be came louder and more varied, their invita tion more urgent. The tone was deceptive even to me close beside him, and I listened with admiration for his skill. Daylight now came quickly, so that my eyes no longer strained at shadows. Robins called and scolded from trees below, a Caro lina wren sang, and in the distance I heard the loud drumming of a great pileated wood pecker. The turkey calls continued. Soon dark shapes came walking quietly over the open ground before us. A little group of hen turkeys was approaching, pecking at the ground, and stopping con stantly to look about with vigilant eye. The intermittent gobbling of the cock was louder, and in another instant he appeared. PRIDE BEFORE A FALL With spread tail, head drawn back, feathers erect, wings drooped, and body swollen, he strutted proudly before the seemingly indifferent hens. Light shone from the bronzed feathers of his back and breast. The bare, wattled skin of his head was red and purple, and his tail was tipped with brown. Truly he was a magnificent creature (Color Plate I and page 468). So intent had I become on the great birds that I had forgotten my hunter companion entirely, and the roar of his gun startled me almost as much as it did the turkeys. The hens disappeared instantly, running and flying among the trees, but the splendid gobbler lay prostrate where he had fallen at the shot. In another moment I was admiring his rich colors and examining with interest the five-inch "beard" of hairlike plumes pend ent from his heavy breast. His legs were armed with sharp-pointed spurs, and a fleshy wattle dangled from his forehead. A half hour later, as we started home with the twenty-pound bird, we saw hen turkeys crossing a distant field while other gobblers called belligerently from the valley below. In those days of abundant game it was considered entirely proper to hunt the tur key in early spring. In fact, this was the only time when the wily gobblers were to be found except by chance. Wisely planned game laws now restrict this sport to other seasons. MOST IMPORTANT GROUP OF BIRDS The great group of fowl-like birds (the Order Galliformes), to which the turkey and its relatives belong, is widely distributed through all the continents of the world and is the most important order of birds so far as man is concerned. More than eight hundred kinds are known, ranging in size from the tiny orien tal quail, no larger than a sparrow, to huge turkeys and long-tailed pheasants. Four of the seven families of the order are found native in North America, and members of a fifth, indigenous in the Old World, have been introduced in our continent. The turkey (Family Meleagrididae) is the principal contribution of the New World to the domesticated birds kept by man. Captive turkeys were found among the In dians in abundance on the discovery of *This is the fifteenth article, with paintings by Maj. Allan Brooks, in the notable GEOGRAPHIC series describing the bird families of the United States and Canada.