By Otha Barham
The Meridian Star
NOTE: In 1998 this Meridian Star column by Otha Barham won first place in the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association for best newspaper story in an area of more than 15 states. Judges were from outside the Association.
They are there in the meadows and on the oak ridges and in the stark river bottoms of very early spring. In our minds, they are waiting for us. And so we go there to watch them, to hunt them, another blessing that we don't deserve, served up from an ever overflowing cup of gifts from the wilds.
The giant strutting gobblers show their colors; red, white and blue heads pulled back sharply against back feathers that form a background blacker than coal but with a gold-washed iridescence. They fill their robust chests with the cool air of morning, swelling themselves almost to bursting. Deep pink feet jut out like candy sticks and barely balance the rotund monarchs above them. Their extended tail feathers form a semi-circular fan. Each spreading tail feather aligns itself with two dozen others, all precisely spacing themselves like parading soldiers performing “Eyes Right.”
The huge birds pose, statue still, as we and the waiting hens hold our breaths. Then a candy stick foot flashes forward for the first step in a deliberate march, performed with a precision rehearsed only by some miracle of inheritance. Five, six, seven measured steps, and we wonder if he himself knows when he will turn. Then, swiveling as if he knew all along just when, he is retracing his steps like a tightrope aerialist, carefully placing each foot and facing neither right nor left in the slightest.
We exhale. And we smile behind our camouflaged masks and marvel at the sight. We are impressed. And the monarch's hens are impressed. One of them clucks softly, and suddenly the strutting tom thrusts his neck forward and screams the lustiest sound in all the woodlands. The shocking call thrills us to the core. The hens quake. Other birds fall momentarily silent, as the king listens for any that do not honor his claim to dominance and prepares to put the unheeding in their place.
We have little control over the exhibitions that unfold before our eyes in early spring. We are just witnesses. We only intercede briefly, reverently and try to fool the wary toms. And what we really do is pay homage to them and their ways.
Now and then we succeed in calling one to gun. And then, along with feeling gratitude and humility, we rejoice for the species. For it is the very wildest of the big birds that have eluded us and remain to spread their genes of exceptional cunning to the gobblers in our future. And how we want them to be there for us and for those to follow.
(This column appears in Otha Barham's latest book. Contact him for copies.)