Photo by Michael R. Jeffords

May 1, 2019

Turkey Hunting and Spying on Spring

When I was a kid I bounced between pretending I was invincible and invisible. In my teenager years I learned I was neither, yet I discovered that wearing camouflage and staying still can make you relatively invisible to wildlife. Today, one of the many motivations that gets me in the field every season is my ability to be somewhat invisible to everything around me, which sometimes includes wildlife, and on a few occasions, humans. Being afield provides me with a much-needed moment to slow down and watch the subtle behaviors of wildlife when they don’t know you’re around. Since my day job is in wildlife management, getting my boots muddy or getting covered in ticks keeps me grounded in the wildlife we’re managing and the opportunities a sustainable resource can provide for all Illinoisans.

A young hunter walking across an agricultural field towards a wooded area. The young hunter is wearing camouflage.
Photo by Mark Alessi

Being in the woods during turkey season brings things into perspective for me. I become keenly aware just how stark and silent the winter landscape is, and that although summer can seem long to us, it is a short time period for invertebrates and vertebrates, of which a large majority won’t see more than one or two summers. For the most part, humans no longer migrate (exceptions exist: “snowbirds”). Most humans live in homes with heating and air-conditioning and purchase their food. Woodland wildlife must either migrate or develop adaptations for surviving the winter months.

Shortly after the cold months the woods come alive as the spring season means wildlife are breeding or having young. Sitting in the spring woodland, I witness warblers moving through, commonly fooling me as to what species they are. I hear gnatcatchers doing their thing in the treetops above me. An occasional hummingbird will squeak by me going Mach 10, returning to Jim Edgar Panther Creek (Cass County) to breed after a flight from Central America. The trees are budding or have leaves, and the floor of the woods is teeming with plants pushing resources to grow as quickly as possible. Between two mornings, I honestly can tell that the plants have grown overnight. Since I hunt public land, if I stumble across a deer, the post-hunting season jitters are still strong as each deer tends to come unglued at the sight of a human in camouflage. I struggle with moving through the forest floor and stepping on understory plants as my boot impression is enough to all but kill them—yet, I know that they’ll survive.

Another component of turkey hunting and observing spring is that my 7-year-old son is tagging along with me. His presence allows me to reflect on how Illinois can better recruit new hunters. He currently has a deep interest for hunting, fishing and camping, but I also recognize that some youth and adults do not. Thus, the question of nature vs nurture comes to mind, and that there may be scores of Illinoisans who have an interest in hunting or trapping but have no mechanism to learn about or participate in it.

A young hunter wearing camouflage in a camouflage blind. The young hunter is holding a wooden box turkey call.
Photo by Mark Alessi

Part of our desire to get in the spring woods may be that after a long winter my son and I are eager to spend time outdoors. He started hunting with me when he was 2.5 years old, and now I find myself spending time in the outdoors watching him turn into a young man, which inevitably means he will be a grownup one day. The time I spend showing him how to walk on deer trails to be quiet, holding back twigs so you don’t smack the person in the face behind you (or hold them back if you want to smack them), and sitting perfectly still while a deer, squirrel or sometimes a turkey walks close by is time well spent.

Although I am 34 years old, I already think that, somewhat like the grasses, forbs and trees, one day I will find myself preparing for my long and cold “winter.” I know that the time I spend watching the landscape come to life each spring is no different than watching my son blossom into someone who loves our natural resources as much as me. Each spring I feel fortunate to pull up my boots and spend a few hours playing chess with an animal that is no doubt much savvier than me in the turkey woods. I also consider myself extremely lucky that I can play a small role in our future wildlife resources and providing the public with opportunities to enjoy them.

Mark Alessi is the Chief of the Division of Wildlife Resources, Office of Resource Conservation, Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

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