Thursday, March 12, 2009

Who's that chick with the dead turkey?

Oh my, it's ME!

It's been seven years since I was a regular old newspaper reporter, but today I dipped my toes back in that water with an article about spring turkey hunting in the Sacramento Bee's Outbound section.

Read more...And I've got to say: Hats off to the Bee for having the huevos to run hunting stories at a time when most major metropolitan daily newspapers in this state ignore it, or choose to cover hunting only as a problem, or a political issue.

Now, there's no need to tell you what's in the story - you'll either click over and read it yourself, or you came to this blog because of the story. (And if you came here because you read the story and you're horrified that I hunt, please feel free to comment on this or any other post. This is a civilized blog and we've had some very vigorous and fascinating discussions with non-hunters. As long as you're not rude, you will not be attacked here.)

What I want to do in this post is share with you some of what isn't in the story.

Fascinating statistic. I pored over all sorts of hunting stats, and I can tell you that hunters in this state bag an estimated 24,600 turkeys per year - about 80 percent of them during the spring season, when we can take three.

But here's something that will freak out all you whitetail fans on the other side of that big mountain range: We take only 28,600 deer per year.

People have hunted deer here since forever because they're indigenous. Turkeys, on the other hand, are planted, and regular hunting has been going on only since 1968, when we opened our first season on them in San Luis Obispo County. I really expected deer bag numbers to be much higher than turkey numbers.

P.S. If you go over to the story, be sure to click on the "California turkey hunting statistics" link - there's a ton of stuff besides statistics in there, including a how-to for people who want to start turkey hunting, safety tips and a list of places to hunt in the Sacramento region.

Good metaphors. I asked everyone I interviewed why turkey hunting drives us wild. My buddy Phillip at The Hog Blog gave me the line I used in the story: "Call and response." I figured the non-hunting readers at the Bee could relate to that best. And that was my goal: I had to write a story that was accessible to any reader who had interest in it.

But two other people couched it in terms hunters would really relate to: "It's the bull elk of the bird species," said Andy Bauer, a sales rep at my local Sportsman's Warehouse (Rocklin).

And Jim Garcia, owner of Garcia's Hunting Preserve (a local guide service with access to 15,000 acres of private land from Lincoln to Maxwell), totally nailed it: "It's like a poor man's elk hunting." Yep, that's it. The same excitement without the same travel requirements, and without the same physical requirements. Still hunting instead of hiking all over creation. Gentle terrain.

Favorite line out of a government report. There are two groups of people in California that hate turkeys: grape growers (mis amigos!) and people in neighborhoods with Turkey Problems. A lot of people in California live adjacent to turkey habitat, and some people go out of their way to feed the birds, then freak out when the gobblers get a little unruly during mating season. (Or, just as realistically, some moron in the neighborhood feeds them, and the neighbors who don't have to put up with the gallinaceous incursions.)

So, California produced this massive "Strategic Plan for Wild Turkey Management" in 2004, and the section dealing with problems spurred by human feeding notes, "Turkeys that are fed by people become habituated to those food sources and may become a nuisance."

I thought immediately of Berkeley.

'Nuff said.

OK, not 'nuff said. When I was a young reporter, I covered the homeless in Palo Alto (home of Stanford University), and efforts to curb the unruly behavior of some who thought it was a good idea to panhandle aggressively at ATM machines. I'll never forget what the guy at the local homeless service organization told me: "Holly, we gave more to the homeless this year than we ever have before, and this is the year they've been the most demanding and pushy." Or something to that effect. I was pretty liberal at the time, but that taught me an important lesson about human behavior. And this report reminded me: Human behavior is an awful lot like animal behavior.

Moving on!

Funny reaction. I tried taking a few photos for this story at Sportsman's Warehouse after I interviewed the resident turkey experts there, and had a hell of a time. Part of it was challenging lighting, but part of it was that - surprise, surprise - hunters are pretty distrustful of anyone who works for a newspaper.

I didn't want to ambush shoppers, so if I thought they were going to step into the frame, I introduced myself and told them what I was doing.

So, when two men walked up to the turkey decoy aisle, I stuck my right hand out to one of them and said, "Hi, my name is Holly Heyser and I'm working on a story about spring turkey hunting for the Sacramento Bee." The guy stared at my hand like I was offering him a coiled rattlesnake, or perhaps a cup of cyanide, and just walked away.

People always want to know if I'm treated rudely by men when I'm out in the field, but I have never been so rudely treated by a hunter as I was by this man. Not impressed! Manners, son, manners!

Indigenous or not? Turkeys are not indigenous to California - at least not the ones we have here today. We've planted many different kinds, and the Rio Grandes are what really took root. We have some fantastic habitat - the oak woodlands that ring the Central Valley are Turkey Heaven.

But there's actually archeological evidence that another species of turkey lived in Southern California about 10,000 years ago - they've apparently found lots of turkey bones in the La Brea Tarpits (a favorite geek hangout of mine when I was a kid and aspired to be a paleontologist).

Unlike other introduced species, though, there's no evidence I could find that they're destroying any indigenous plants or animals. Turkeys are "opportunistic omnivores" - they'll eat whatever they can get.

I really wanted to find out where the Sierra Club stands on this, so I called both its Sacramento and San Francisco offices, but no one called me back. Yo, Sierra Club: I tried.

And in case anyone's really freaking out about this, the Department of Fish and Game isn't doing any more planting - it got smacked for that back in the 1990s. The department occasionally relocates "problem" turkeys to established turkey areas, and that's it.

Poop. Sure, why not end with poop.

One of the people I interviewed was Ryan Mathis, regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation. He talked a lot about scouting, and I made a half-assed effort to scout last weekend when Boyfriend and I went mushroom hunting in Amador County, which is turkey central (not to mention nice wine country). The problem was that I didn't know exactly what kind of feathers and poop I was looking for, so I emailed him for guidance.

He obliged me by sending enormous close-up pictures of turkey crap, which pretty much made my day. I'm going to refrain from posting those pictures here, but only because I haven't asked for permission, not because I've suddenly become delicate. Suffice it to say that gobblers and jakes have J- or L-shaped poop, and hens poop in a curled pile. (Strangely enough, he sent me one shot of crap that was both L-shaped and curled. We'll call that one Pat.)

So that's your fun fact for the day: Curly poop = girls. Straighter poop = boys. Makes sense. I think.

Postscript: Just noticed the banner ad over my story... Yikes!

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


Anonymous said...

I am thinking seriously about trying turkey hunting next year. In san antonio park, I got a gobbler to come strutting in my direction just because I made a gobbly noise. He was annoyed when he didn't find the dude who was callin his wimmin. Most of the time I see turkeys is in santa theresa county park. Part of the year the toms seem to form their own little "Boyz Clubb" on one hill. The hens and the hatchlings on the next hill. I've watched the hens group watch and hide from the hawks and I seen the Boyz clubb run off a little coyote.

While I don't excuse the guys in Sportsman's Warehouse for their rudeness, if I didn't know you, I would be afraid, too. In 1995 or so, I tried to give an interview on the San Jose junk guns ban. They got very little footage of me because I was so flustered. They also wanted me to point my gun at the cameraman and I wouldn't do it.

Anonymous said...

Good article Holly and informative!
I have taken several turkey hunters out over the past 20 plus years and have seen such a variety of calling techniques.

Needless to say I have more fun watching the hunter than actually doing the hunting myself.

Most of the time the hunter wants to do the calling themselves although, I am sometimes asked to do the calling and that is also quite fun.

Those birds can see better than any other game animal of which I know, and I have been told by people who know better than I, that like we humans, they also see in full color!

Holly Heyser said...

Hey Jean - I don't begrudge anyone for not wanting to talk to me or be photographed. But not reaching out to shake an extended hand? Really low class!

Michael - You should see some of the comments on the Bee article. As I expected, people think the fact that they see turkeys all the time means they're easy to hunt. I tried to explain that in the story, but I guess it didn't work.

sportingdays said...


Congratulations on the wonderful article and the great play in the Bee.

For me, it was a real treat to see you stretch your journalistic legs and showcase, in one piece, your many talents that we've come to enjoy in your blog over time: great reporting, numbers crunching, analysis, engaging writing with some fine turns of phrase. At the same time, as you always do, you were able to eloquently express some of the motivations behind turkey hunting -- and hunting in general.

I hope this is the first of many, many articles in The Sacramento Bee.

Holly Heyser said...

I think that will depend on the economy and the Bee's situation. With layoffs at the Bee this week, everything's in flux, but if there's a continued budget for freelancing, I suspect I'll be welcome back on their pages.

Gotta say the Bee's been really good about hunting - not just running my pieces (this and the op-ed last year), but not falling into the trap of villifying hunting. There are definitely people there who are at least neutral, and in some cases really very accepting of hunting.

I cringe when I see the media making stupid mistakes about hunting and guns, or showing obvious bias, but way more often than not, the Bee has been really good.

Anonymous said...

Like I tried to say but didn't convey. Even if you were a space alien, their response probably would have gotten the planet blown up.
Thank you for being here and being a positive and effective voice for hunting.

Holly Heyser said...

LOL! Holly, as Marvin the Martian. Love it.

Anonymous said...

great article! i hope this opens peoples eyes to our great sport of hunting turkeys and other game!

Andy Bauer sales rep for "Sportmans warehouse"

Holly Heyser said...

Hey Andy, thanks! I'm sure I'll be seeing you around. I'm getting closer and closer to buying that rifle I've been coveting.

Anonymous said...

I've said it already, but great job, Holly! And no, not just because you used my name in the piece...

SimplyOutdoors said...

Great job on the article.

I've only been turkey hunting for 2 years - this will be my third - but I have to agree with Phillip: It's the call and response that keeps bring me back. It is too awesome.

And the part about the "Pat" poop, that was too funny!

Anonymous said...

I did take exception to the Bee just dropping an AP story into Sunday's edition with "Boy accused of killing was avid hunter". My issue were.

1 - This article highlighted the fact the boy was a 'avid hunter' even though he's 11 and you can't get a hunting license till your 12. Okay, there is a youth mentored option so he could have been afield.

2 - There was a host of other potential 'family issues' around this boy's life.

3 - Some pretty irresponsible gun storage alarms in this situation as well. He's got 4 and 7 year old step sisters around the house with a 20 gauge just hanging in his closet.

4 - PETA uses psycho babble (people that torture animals turn into serial killers) and a tragedy like this to encourage PA governor to eliminate hunting till you are 18 years of age.

Totally random thought (somewhat). Does anyone feel like we have a crisis of morality in this country with the daily serial killer stories? These guys (probably 99% are men) go off and kill family, co-workers, etc. and then kill themselves. Note to depressed men out there, "Please do not kill other people, donate your guns/ammo to me and I'll buy you a bus ticket to the Golden Gate bridge".

signed 'geober'

Anonymous said...

Oh and btw, Great story Holly! You're awesome!


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Way to go Holly, a really great story in the Bee, and you've given the armchair warriors something to squabble about which they seem to enjoy! A valuable service to the community!!

But you've set me wondering, what do these nuisance Turkeys actually do? is their mating that, er , dramatic that they disturb the peace? Do they raid peoples trash? What's the score?


Jon Roth said...

Well done, and congrats on the article in the Bee. The Boy was drawn for the Youth Hunt this year for the first time so we are going to give it a shot. We'll see...

We've got turkeys that come through our place and they make a mess of the bark and leaves around the property but I love to have them around. Its great to see the kids marvel at their antics.

Native said...

As always Holly,
Very well written and also just plain fun to read at the same time. (your Sac. Bee article)

The Sac. Bee has always been very good to me and my fellow outdoors entrepreneurs in their continued support of the outdoor sports.
The L.A. Times on the other hand has been a continual stonewall towards me for the past decade or so.

I finally got a call last week (tough times I guess) asking me if I would like to advertise in the L.A. Times.
I said: that you do not even have a forum which could accommodate my sort of business.
She said: We will create one then!

Go Figure! So I may be advertising in the L.A. Times in the near future........

Those nincompoops who commented that Turkey hunting was easy are probably the same nincompoops who also say things like: How can you kill those defenseless little animals, (as the same persons are munching on a McDonalds burger).

Defenseless animals? give me a break!
Tell that to the hunter whom I had out for a turkey hunt a few years back.
A supposed "dead" Turkey came back to life while we were headed back to camp, and spurred my client badly enough so that he had to be carried to the hospital for 28 stitches on forearm and face!

Anyway, congrats on a very good article Holly, and thanks for being an intelligent voice for the modern sport hunter.

Brandon Darnell said...

Hey Holly,

Nice job on the article. I'm frankly surprised to see that in the Bee, and was wondering what you think about the comments suggesting hunting go in the sports pages.

I know that many (if not most) hunters consider it a "sport" or refer to it that way in one form or another, but it would seem to feed into the stereotype of "killing for sport" rather than sustenance.

Since you have an interesting perspective on hunting as a hunter and a journalist, I'd love to see a post about whether hunting has a place in the sports pages.

Blessed said...

One of these days I'll get to be the chick with a dead turkey... Hubby won't take me until after he's shot his first turkey of the season he says I don't sit still enough :)

OK, off to read what I'm sure is a great article. I wonder if my crazy Aunt in Sacramento read it? I hope she did!

gary said...

Really enjoyed your writting. I also think a lot of the kick in turkey hunting comes from the 'call and respond'. Thats what I love about elk hunting and also what we discovered this year about whitetail deer. Called in five deer and I was totally sold on it.

Shawn K. Wayment, DVM said...

Good job on the article! I've been getting ready all weekend for the start of the Kansas archery turkey season! Can't hardly wait!

Keep up the good work!