Montana Viewpoint: Turkeys in the straw and those fancy feathers

Jim Elliott

Of late I have been watching Wild Turkeys mate. It’s not that I am particularly interested in their personal lives, but as I have been cleaning out culverts on my road they have been practicing their intimate moments about 50 feet from me, so it’s hard to ignore.

Also hard to ignore (and actually more interesting) is to watch the Toms compete for the attention of their potential mates. At first they seem to do it solo, in this case in about the middle of a newly seeded pasture. Why they would strut their stuff in the middle of a 25 acre field with no other turkeys visible, I do not know, but they do it, maybe like a practice session.

They may also make wooing noises which, because I am deaf, I cannot hear. Later, after the practice sessions, two or three of the Toms will then strut their same stuff in front of each other, the presence of Turkey hens optional.

At one point I was watching about eight Toms having a close-quarters free for all. It looked like a large ball of feathers with tails fanned out and held high, slowly moving back and forth across the field, steered by whichever turkeys were winning. Simultaneously, two Toms were locked in beak-to-beak combat, the probable winner pushing the other down the road until I lost sight of them.

I am not particularly fond of turkeys, and I have had quite a bit of opportunity to experience them, and in some volume. For a few years I was the lucky host of between 250 and 300 of the critters because of a unique attraction I provided. I calved out in the fall, and in order to carry the cows through winter and keep their milk up for their calves, I fed them grain as well as hay.

I had purchased on old roller mill in pieces (made in Spokane in the early 1900s), braised the broken parts back together, and after a lot of trial and error, was in business. It was belt driven with about a four foot pulley and two five hundred pound rollers which the grain passed between and got thoroughly crushed. The grain was augured from the grain bin into the roller mill and then into a gravity box from which I fed the cows.

The turkeys—all 200 plus of them—were very interested in this process and what seemed like a sea of turkeys would flow and ebb around me watching and ready to score a bite or two. The closest would stand about an arm’s length plus three inches from me, and if I had been agile enough I could have reached out and grabbed them by the neck. In my dreams I did that several times and took glee in throttling them.

More annoying were their activities in the hay stack. I also raised oat hay which was stored under a large shed with feed bunks on one side. The turkeys would get on the stack and paw away for kernels of oats, breaking twine and throwing straw about. The result looked like the product of the rear end of a threshing machine. It made feeding a nuisance and I became very inventive in cussing them.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks was very cooperative and gave me tarps to put over the oat hay for the turkeys to shred on their way to shredding the hay which the tarps covered. For two years the Department trapped a couple hundred birds for transportation to what I wished was Siberia but it actuality was Kalispell. I would lay a trap by blading a path in the snow which was then lined on one side with a rocket propelled net about 100 feet long.

Early of a morning we would bait the trap with oats, and when some 200 birds were eating there the rockets would fire in unison. The net soared arcing into the air and the birds were trapped by the net. It made my heart soar, too.

Eventually common sense prevailed, and I stopped putting up oat hay, and life got a lot better. But every once in a while I will occasionally hear from a new resident who, to attract wildlife for their viewing pleasure will begin by feeding a couple of turkeys, which, like freeloaders everywhere, tell their friends. When the turkeys reach critical mass the newcomers call to ask for my sage advice on how to get rid of them. “First thing you do, “I tell them, “Is you stop feeding them.”

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.