Competition in the wild
I got to my tree stand 50 minutes before dawn, 20 before the legal start of the hunting day. I climbed up the tree, clipped my safety harness, pulled my rifle up, and sat down to wait and enjoy the woods in the predawn and dawn hours. It was only 20 minutes later when I heard a crack. I was listening intently for the snap of a branch on the ground, or a crunch in the leaves, and for an instant my hopes rose. This, however, was the louder crack of a thick branch breaking high up in the tree, followed by the soft thud as it hit the ground. There was no wind, and the branch sounded too big to have been broken by a scampering squirrel. In any case, it was still too dark for squirrels to be moving about. I had a different guess. “Turkeys,” I said to myself. “Probably several of them, roosting someplace nearby. One must have seen or heard my movement, gotten nervous, and shifted its position causing a dead branch to fall.”I strained my eyes to the treetop skyline against the dark gray background. I couldn’t see any silhouettes of birds. Several minutes passed with no more sounds. Maybe it really had been just a coincidental breaking of a branch. As sunrise approached somewhere far east over the Green Mountains, I took my thermos off its branch-hanger and poured myself a capful of coffee. Almost at once I heard another sound, a soft steady crunching, more like what I’d been hoping for. A four-legged animal was trotting through the dry leaves not far up the slope to my right. There couldn’t be a mistake about this. Again I strained my eyes, this time on the forest floor. My ears directed my glance, and in the twilight I caught sight of a coyote pacing along the ridgeline. Its fur matched the light brown of dead leaves, and if it hadn’t starting moving I wouldn’t have seen it. My first thought was, “That’s kind of cool to see.” My second thought, that followed almost immediately, was, “Well there goes my morning of hunting. No deer is going to come with a few hundred yards of here after that coyote leaves its scent all over the place.”That was when several turkey starting clucking softly somewhere up in the trees ahead of me. They were also having some thoughts about the situation. “Hey. Did you see that?” one said. “We’d better be careful. There’s a coyote down there.”“No kidding,” came the reply. “And I was just getting ready to land.” “Yeah. Me, too. First that big person with the funny orange hat. Now a coyote. This is not a good morning.” The conversation went on for a few moments. So I’d been right about the turkeys all along, even though I still couldn’t see them. And that, almost certainly, explained the coyote. It had been waiting patiently for breakfast to drop down from the skies, until I came along, climbed up a tree, and scared its meal. It wasn’t long before three turkeys — all within 30 yards of my stand — suddenly took off from their roosts. They flew off into the woods to my left, away from the coyote, their big wings and bulky bodies crashing through branches as they disappeared from sight. “Well there goes my morning of hunting,” the coyote was thinking. “Those turkeys aren’t going to come down anywhere near here while that human is around. So much for breakfast. And lunch. And supper. What am I going to tell the kids?”The coyote paced back and forth just below the top of the ridge for another two minutes, and then apparently gave up and trotted off over the hill to the northwest. I waited another 15 minutes, drank another capful of coffee, and was getting ready to climb down when I heard more crashing. With the coyote now gone, at least six more turkeys dropped down out of roosts all around me, and started south through the trees at a quick pace. To my surprise, however, the turkeys stopped just before they were out of sight. At least one of them started clucking again. I assumed they were trying to locate or call in the missing members of their flock that had either been scared off by the coyote, or simply hadn’t come down yet. But it turned out that something more serious was going on, because all of a sudden there was a flurry of activity. From my vantage point, I could see two birds charging each other, wings flapping and chests bumping while the others scurried about watching to see what the outcome would be. Apparently the clucking I’d heard was more along these lines.“Hey, Tom. The coyote’s gone. I should call everybody together.”“Good idea, Jake. But it’s my flock. I’ll give the call.”“No way. It was my idea. I’m going to call.”“You even try it and I’m going to stuff some tail feathers down your throat.”“Oh yeah? You and whose army?”The skirmish lasted only a few seconds — just three quick rounds. Then it was over. One of the turkeys backed away, while the other one strutted around another minute with its fan opened in full display seeing if there was going to be any other competition. There wasn’t any. Shortly after that, they all disappeared. And shortly after that, I disappeared also. It wasn’t turkey season and this stand on this morning was going to be a fruitless place to wait for deer. Another morning of competition in the woods was under way. And along with one dejected coyote and one defeated turkey, I was on the losing end. Or, maybe, on this morning, I was actually a winner.