Waiting on Sunshine

posted on July 28, 2021
"Chief" by Ryan Kirby

Nearly every morning in the springtime Ol’ Sunshine would gobble from his roost on a cottonwood limb hanging halfway over Canyon Creek. Although I couldn’t actually see him from my bedroom window, I could hear him crow; and although I wasn’t always ready to rise and shine right along with him, my newfound natural alarm clock—a perk of country livin’—made me happy.

Eastern wild turkey walking

During the morning hours he’d pick his way through the woods while grubbing up breakfast; maybe he’d say howdy to the girls or beat up on a buddy, I imagine, before entering the pasture behind my house usually around 10 a.m. By then the sun would be high enough over the trees to light up his sandy strutting ground as if it were a stage and he were auditioning. He’d strut back and forth between two cedar trees, chest out as if he were a drill sergeant listening for another gobbler, a crow, a cow, anything to contest him. He’d nearly click his heels when he’d pivot and turn back the other way, and when he did the sun would backlight his tailfan so it’d almost glow.

It wouldn’t be long before he attracted an audience of hens, and ultimately they’d scratch around together for grasshoppers and eventually wander off back into the shadows of the woods where they’d loaf until dark. Occasionally I’d hear a gobble or two during midday if I happened to be messing around outside, but normally I’d just hear him as he flew up to roost and again first thing in the morning as he’d start it all over again. I began calling him “The Sunshine Bird” because he added color to my day, even if it were raining.

Judging by a scraggly beard not yet full—I’d say 6 or 8 inches long at that time—he was probably a 2-year-old that first April he came around, possibly even 3. He was an Eastern turkey by lineage, and one to make others of his ilk proud. You see, he was one of relatively few Eastern turkeys charged with holding the line on the exact divide in south-central Oklahoma separating the subspecies’ ranges—where Rios dominate if you go a half-mile farther South or West, but where Easterns rule immediately to the East and North. Sunshine certainly behaved like Easterns are fabled to behave; that is, he was solitary, with a gobble louder than most Rios, not quite as frenetic, and preferring a home of hardwood timber to fields of cactus and limestone he easily could’ve chosen.

Male wild turkey running

I decided not to hunt him that first year but rather to let him blossom into a mighty longbeard, whose spurs and pure challenge of hunting would make a memorable trophy on my wall. Besides, I was getting some great photographs out of the deal and free admission to his daily performances to boot.

As spring morphed into summer, I wouldn’t hear Ol’ Sunshine’s gobbles so much, naturally, but I’d glimpse him every few days as he cut through a corner of the pasture for hoppers and a look about. Several times he walked up the middle of my driveway and onto my archery range in the back yard.

Fall came around and I’d see him every now and then when I’d bowhunt deer near the creek. How he lived with all the bobcats and coyotes back there—all three routinely seen on the same trail camera—is a testament to a turkey’s prowess. November brought the north winds, and I’d see him in the wheatfield I’d planted; once I even saw him high-step it across a blanket of white Christmas snow.

By the looks of him, Ol’ Sunshine was thriving come March when the grays and blacks and khakis began giving way to reds, yellows and greens.

painting of wild turkeys in fall woods
Painting: "Cypress Sunrise" by Ryan Kirby

I first heard his thunderous gobble again on April 1, as if to signal to the world that spring had officially arrived in Canyon Creek. A couple days later I saw him. This year he was big, no doubt a dominant bird, with a beard 2 inches from dragging the ground and spurs that would make a fightin’ rooster fly the pit. The hens were solidly his now and were rarely more than a few yards away as he made his daily rounds. Having had the benefit of studying him for a year, I figured hunting him would be fairly easy, so I was in no hurry to do so. In fact, my 15-year-old nephew hadn’t killed a turkey yet—despite trying more than several times—so I figured Ol’ Sunshine would be the perfect prize.

One breezy morning we eased out before dawn and sure as peanuts at the ballpark Ol’ Sunshine sounded off. Due to his towering vantage the cottonwood tree afforded him, our movements were hampered so we set up as close as we could. Twenty minutes later the hens pitched down, and so did Sunshine. My nephew was not so impressed when the flock wandered off in the exact opposite direction of my calling.

We tried him again that evening, but again he gave us the slip and chose to roost elsewhere that night. I held off hunting Sunshine during the week, but soon the nephew got busy with basketball games or whatever and I had some business travel. We hunted him one more time a week or so later, but for whatever reason he didn’t gobble much that day and we never could get him to come in. Too soon the month-long season ended, and Sunshine resumed his normal behavior as spring morphed to summer. So I listened to him and happily watched him for another year, almost as a rancher does a blue-ribbon steer.

wild turkey strutting

April 6, 2020, came around just like Sunshine did nearly each day. I’d hear him gobble—now a thunderous KAAAAAAAA! that would raise my hat if I had a window open. If you didn’t know what it was, the noise on its own would be downright scary. But to me it was glorious. Then Sunshine would come around into the pasture to strut for his hens. By now he was giant with a footer beard and saber-like spurs that glinted in the light.

I waited a few days for the nephew to get his gear together, but a freshly minted driver’s license and a new girlfriend beckoned him elsewhere. Finally, something in my very nature told me it was harvest time. So on a Saturday morning I got up well before my dawn, slung my Benelli over my camo vest and slipped to the edge of the woods on the high bluff overlooking Canyon Creek. About 10 minutes later, Sunshine’s murderous gobble shook the woods.

I watched in delight as the woods came alive. First the owls, then the turkeys, the squirrels, the crows, the songbirds, the crickets, the cranes, the frogs and even the neighbor’s dogs across the road. Everyone recognized just who was boss as Ol’ Sunshine flapped down from his roost.

As the stars would have it, the hens pitched down and began working their way toward the oak bottom, just below my position. I never even gave a call. Behind them, I saw Sunshine picking his way toward them, gobbling every few minutes to keep tabs. Fifteen minutes later, the hens were within range. Moments later Sunshine arrived, and oh, what a show!

He drummed and spat, drummed and gobbled some as he strutted through the oak leaves digging furrows with his wingtips as he went. At the slightest sound he’d fan, fast as a mousetrap, pirouette 180 degrees then strut 10 yards in the other direction before doing it all again. Each time he’d fan the sun would strike his tailfeathers, illuminating the subtle greens and auburn chromatic colors of his plume. I’ve grown to respect bird watchers more than I used to, but the truth is, there are colors you simply can’t see through the best 10-power bino that you can see when the bird’s wing is outstretched in your hands. The entire sun-dappled scene of colors and contrasts was almost like a painting—you know, like the Ryan Kirby print they auction off at the NWTF meetings for about 500 bucks—and I was enjoying it so much that I almost forgot why I was there.

painting of gobbler strutting in field
Painting: "A Place in the Sun II" by Ryan Kirby

When his hens continued working their way farther into the woods he broke strut briefly to follow them. Twenty-five, now 30 yards from me, I instinctively gave a sharp cutt on my mouth call, and Sunshine’s tailfeathers instantly dropped. He rotated and stretched his Old Glory head, peering for the maker of the foreign hen call. I hesitate to tell you about the sappy part when our eyes met for an instant, but I’ll do it anyway. And that’s when I squeezed the trigger, gunfire obliterating all remnants of serenity.

Hunter with wild turkey in Oklahoma

Hens flew in all directions, leaving only whooshing sounds and a few limbs waving in their wake as the cloud of smoke and feathers floated up then settled down. For a brief moment in time, there was total silence. Then a lone turkey, looking muted and disheveled on the forest floor, began reflexively kicking the leaves, flopping in the morbid, undignified dance of death. I watched, hands shaking, my shotgun still trained. I believe when birds flop their spirit is released. I really do. After all, it’s a fact that life certainly leaves a body, and often this last shutter of movement—when the feathers go limp and calm—is when I believe this happens. I had a hand softly on Sunshine’s wing as he shivered one last time then lay still.

But this time I felt something more than just a sense of accomplishment that a hunter often does knowing he was able to outfox one of the wariest animals Earth has ever produced. Rather, I felt something odd, almost like the day a country boy has to take his 4-H pig to market. As I stroked Sunshine’s wings and smoothed his feathers, I noticed the perfection in his condition and the mass of size. Likely, his breast meat would be tough, but I’d eat it anyway; no doubt he’d make a great display in my den. After taking a few photos I carried him to the house and went inside for coffee. It was a memorable morning indeed.

Hunter carrying wild turkey
A successful hunt for a legendary creature creates a certain kind of finality that is hard to articulate. It's true the author would hunt Ol' Sunshine again in a heartbeat, but he also must admit a walk through the woods is not the same.

But the next morning felt even stranger. For starters, I woke up late. Something was just off—you know, like when silence itself is eerie. Then it dawned on me: There were no gobbles that Sunday morning. The next day there wouldn’t be any gobbles, either. On Monday, I set an alarm clock and dragged myself to the office. Around 10 a.m. I refilled my coffee and looked out the window. There were no hens, and no Sunshine to be seen.

This April there are still no turkeys behind my house. I guess Sunshine’s harem found another gobbler elsewhere. Surely some birds will eventually come around and another tom will take Sunshine’s place, but for now it’s awfully quiet around here.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: I’m a hunter and I will always hunt. It was that turkey’s time to be taken, and I do not feel guilty for doing so. Perhaps a coyote would’ve devoured him a day later, maybe my nephew would have tagged him the next week or maybe the record-setting winter would have frozen him out months later. But what I do know for certain is a big part of me selfishly wishes Ol’ Sunshine were still out back, putting on a show.


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