I just returned from several days of hunting wild turkeys in Iowa’s magnificent Loess Hills. The Loess Hills State Forest is composed of over ten thousand state-owned acres of mixed wooded ridges and row-cropped valleys. The small community of Pisgah hosts the state forest office and visitor center, and is more or less at the center of the forest’s four management units. The long, often winding, valley-floor fields all have buffers of mixed grasses and legumes between the woods and the cultivated land. Roads are few and traffic noise is far away and seldom heard. Management of the land includes prescribed fire to reduce invasive brush and encourage native prairie that once was the dominant plant community in much of the area. It also has included planting of thousands of native hardwood trees in other areas. The scattered crop fields are rented to local farmers. Some of the crops are deliberately left unharvested for wildlife use. In other words, it’s absolutely fantastic wildlife habitat. All the land was purchased from willing sellers using primarily REAP funds. That means that annual property taxes continue to be paid on those acres even though it’s now public land.
Iowa’s spring wild turkey hunting is divided into four seasons, beginning in April and ending in mid May. A hunter may purchase two tags, and only bearded birds may be harvested. Note that I said bearded birds and not male birds (known as toms if mature and jakes if two years or younger). A few hens occasionally sport the unusual growth of modified hair-like feathers that grow from the center of the breast. We actually saw a bearded hen during our hunt. Most people picture a turkey as the fat, broad-breasted bird roasted golden brown for a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast. That is what the commercially raised, domestic version of the turkey has become through selective breeding, but the wild bird’s anatomy is quite different. A tom may appear broad-breasted when he’s all fluffed up in his full strut display, but he can become a sleek and trimmed down bird in a second if he thinks he’s been seen. A wild turkey can run or fly though the woods at amazing speed to elude a predator of human hunter. Even though lean compared to their distant domestic relatives, wild turkeys are among the heaviest birds in all nature that are still capable of flight. They use those strong flight muscles not only to escape anything they think might be a danger, but also to fly into the treetops each night to roost. They’re safer up there in wind and weather than they would be on the ground all night.
If our hunt was measured only by the number of birds harvested, then it would not have been successful. The fierce drive to breed that draws toms to decoys and calls had begun to fade this late in the season. A few toms were still strutting, but the bearded birds we saw were usually several hundred yards away. The few distant gobblers we heard were unseen in the ridge-top forests. Thankfully, there’s much more to the hunt than the harvest. A friend that I have hunted with for more than 40 years and I saw other wildlife in abundance. That included the usual deer and raccoons, but also foxes, coyotes and even a badger. The songbirds were almost deafening as orioles, brown thrashers, catbirds, cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks and eastern towhees serenaded each new day, often from only a few feet away as we sat quietly hidden in in our camouflaged clothing. Migrating warblers and vireos added flashes of color. Whip-poor-wills and owls dominated the gradually fading darkness before dawn, and coyote families sang several concert pieces from not so far away before retiring from their night of hunting.
I’m not sure my body could take many more days of rising at 3:30 and hunting until near sundown, but it was still hard to leave those glorious spring days in the woods behind. There may not have been a turkey this year, but I’ll not soon forget all that was seen and heard. I’m also thankful for the wise use of REAP funding and public land managed for natural values that made the experience possible.
Steve Lewka is a former director of Story County Conservation.