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Raising The Dead  at Cabela's

Raising The Dead

Author: Frank Ross

Suddenly I was staring into the large, blinking eye of a turkey that was supposed to be dead. Why not, I thought, that's the way things have gone since I was seized with an idea that, in hind sight, seems bird brained at best.

Strutting young tom.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. To me there's no more lyrical sound than that of a gobbling tom and a bunch of purring hens responding. I live on a toy farm just north of Sidney, Nebraska and over the past nine years our children have enjoyed many of the benefits of living in the country by raising chickens, sheep and horses. Fresh, farm-raised eggs are a real luxury that is worth the hassle of dealing with a flock of chickens and up until this point in our journey down the agrarian trail, I thought that sheep were the stupidest animals on God's green earth.

I say up to this point because back in the spring of last year I was seized with an idea that I have regretted almost from the first. I had felt for some time that, in terms of competition, our barnyard needed a strutting turkey to add a little color and exuberance to an otherwise dull presentation. At least that's what I used as an excuse when I pitched the big softball across my wife's dinner plate. She saw it coming and took a big whack at it. "Tom's are so aggressive. Do you think they will be too aggressive with the kids? Remember the roosters?" she said.

Sure I remembered the roosters. We had several of them at one time, but they became so aggressive that they even attacked me when I went outside. It was a fatal error of judgment on their part, but I really wanted some turkeys so I soft peddled her concerns. "Not a problem," I assured her.

I was ready to put in my order, which required a minimum of 15 birds, when two of my colleagues suggested that I get the wild eastern birds that were an option. "Why get some fat, over hybridized glob of meat. Wild turkeys would be so much neater to have around," they reasoned. It wasn't much more for the wild variety and since they were willing to take part of the order, I picked up the phone and was the proud, partial owner of 15 turkey poults. The long awaited box came through the postal system and the young birds were quickly released into their new home adjoining the chicken house.

Turkeys are happy to be atop anything, even a pickup truck.

In the beginning they were so much fun to watch. I'd go out and check on them to see how they were doing on a regular basis, and was surprised to learn that shortly after they were big enough to develop feathers, the males were puffing up and strutting. I had assumed that this was a trait that wouldn't develop until they were closer to being full grown, but there they were strutting and attempting to gobble. It was quite comical, and I was convinced that this was one of my better ideas.

They grew quickly and almost immediately their penchant for being on the highest point achievable was self-evident. With so many of them, it was a shoving match as each jockeyed for a better position on their limited perching option, atop a shelf that held their feed. With a little more foresight this would have been an ominous portent of terrible things to come.

When they were old enough to be adopted, fellow writer, Mike Schoby, an enthusiastic advocate of the "wild" option, came over to pick up four birds. Now, this is where the bird's lack of intelligence begins to surface. I have heard all of the stories about turkeys being so stupid that they will look up with open mouths when it's raining and drown, but that seemed so bizarre that I discounted it as a folk myth. The birds he picked up were avid roosters in their pen but when they made the transition to the great outdoors, and a tree line, they became real stupid and chose to sleep on the ground at night. It didn't take long for coyotes to thin the ranks of his flock and he was back for replacements. It also didn't take long for his remaining birds to become educated. Problem is they are happy to be atop anything, even a pickup truck.

I didn't mind them getting on my old beater. It's a 1979 Ford that I drive so that I don't have to worry about dings from my outdoor escapades. I didn't even get upset when they perched atop the open hood and covered my radiator with what I assumed was a editorial comment on my choice of rides, but Mike on the other hand drives a new F-150.

Looking for a missing turkey.

As they grew too big for their pen, I released the flock, somewhat concerned that they would light out and never be seen again. Such was not the case, and they routinely woke me in the morning with their purrs and turkey talk. It was a sublime sound and I excused their occasional indiscretions on my truck, the roof of the barn, the implement building, and our house, even though the accumulation was becoming significant.

My youngest son Jordan's pointer got loose and in a fit of bird work killed four turkeys and half a dozen chickens before she was consigned back to her former owner. It was her second offence. Then a distant neighbor's dog made the mile-long trip over to our farm and killed the rest of our chickens and a couple more turkeys, leaving me with a flock of four; one tom and three hens. Oh well, I reasoned, the spring mating season will replenish my brood stock. While I was miffed about the devastation of my flock, with the shorthair safely removed, and my fat lab too lazy to bother anything, life returned to normal, until last Friday night.

I was sitting with the family at our dinner table when my wife said, "Did you hear that?" "Hear what," was my reply. "Well, it sounded like something fell down the chimney," she said. Suddenly, there was another noise, but it was hard to tell what it was, just a faint clumping sound. "You don't think one of your turkeys fell down the chimney do you?" she asked. "No way, the hole is too small," I said, trying to reassure myself.

Frank trying to locate the trapped turkey.

One of my boys went outside with a flashlight and soon returned with a report. Yes, the turkeys were on the roof. In fact they were roosting on top of the chimney, but there were only three up there... our current flock, minus one.

The lure of warm exhaust from our furnace was too compelling, and for a turkey the height was a natural attraction. I tried to convince myself that one of them had knocked off some of the aging mortar from the chimney and that was what we had heard. After dinner I went outside to see if the missing bird was in its usual spot in one of our out buildings, perched over my truck's hood. No such luck.

Since it was too cold that night to go onto the roof without damaging the shingles, and the following day was predicted to be a record warm February 1st, I opted to wait and see if the morning brought a full count of birds. No such luck!

When the morning sun had sufficiently warmed the southern slope of our two-story roof, I drug out ladders and climbed up for a look-see. I shined a light down the shaft but it was so far down that the light was not bright enough to distinguish between the soot covered environs and brown bird feathers. I quickly tied my flashlight to a piece of nylon cord and lowered it down like a coal miner rescue crew, probing the depths of a Kentucky mine in hopes of finding life.

As the twisting beam of light probed the dark depths below, it became quite evident that the missing bird was found. There it lay, still, and presumably dead from a broken neck, twenty-five feet below. "Whew," I drew back as a foul odor wafted up from below. "It's down there," I shouted to Jordan, who had declared himself a filmmaker for the occasion. As soon as he realized what the potential was, he announced that he was going to win the $10,000 prize from the "America's Funniest Home Video" show. He had the video camera set up on a tripod and was very excited about the possibility. "Ok," he shouted back. "I need you to look down the chimney and then turn to me and say, Yep, it's down there," he instructed. With the prospects of retrieving a decaying turkey from a long, deep shaft of bricks, I wasn't in much of a mood to be "directed," but I was willing to go that far.

Carefully removing the bird.

The big question was how in the world was I going to get this stupid bird out of my chimney, before it really started to stink. While I was pondering this dilemma by daughter came running up. "Papa, I want to make some money like Jordan. Can I make some too," she asked. "Talk to Jordan, I said, maybe he'll split it with you if you'll be his key grip." "What's a key grip?" she asked.

Ignoring her question, I gathered up two large musky-sized treble hooks, affixed them to my nylon cord and spent about 20 minutes discovering that turkey feathers are hard and thick. No luck, not even a nibble. It appeared that the bird was lying on its stomach, making it impossible to gain purchase in a leg or foot. Over the remainder of the morning I tried several other harebrained ideas to no avail, then a friend suggested that I assemble a long tube of PVC pipe and run a cord through it to form a noose. He reasoned that it would be easy to work the line over the bird, draw it tight and pull it out. Another good idea wasted away, as I tried in vain to control 25 feet of pipe that was about as unwieldy as a piece of wet spaghetti.

As the day, and my waning ideas both wore thin, my aspiring Spielberg kept asking, "how much longer is it going to be?" Finally he yelled up to tell me that he was going inside and that all I needed to do was hit the record button when I was ready to pull it out.

As a filmmaker he was impatient, but he had a never-ending stream of suggestions for the extraction. The most salient was that we lower the neighbor's dog down the chimney. Since it had eaten 14 chickens, he reasoned, one turkey wouldn't be much more than a snack. It was the hour of desperation. I even thought about the mafia approach, dumping a 50-pound bag of lime down the tube, but that idea didn't sell well at all. I considered his suggestion and the lime option momentarily, and resigned myself to the inevitable, as darkness drew closer.

Author Frank Ross with rescued turkey.

I was going to have to take it out the hard way by removing bricks from the chimney. I glared at the remaining turkeys as they strutted by, seemingly adding salt to my wounded pride. I grabbed a few tools and in about an hour opened up the access to the bird's unintended sarcophagus. In an attempt to find something humorous about this entire misadventure, and also prepare my wide-eyed child for what was about to happen, I told our four-year-old daughter to be very quiet because I was going to catch a turkey and we didn't want to scare it. I reached into the chimney and groped around for a leg to extricate it with and was surprised that it was warm. Suddenly the leg twitched. When I pulled hard the bird popped loose from the narrow gap it had been wedged into, and a soot-covered head with a big blinking eye greeted me through the gap in the bricks.

In short order I had the bird in hand. After 24 hours inverted in a chimney the hen didn't look like she was ready for the cover of the Wild Turkey Federation's magazine cover, yet she was still alive. I was sure she was very dehydrated, so I took the bird outside and placed it next to the cat's water bowl, but it was too weak, or too frightened to take a drink. I went back inside to clean up the mess and start putting the chimney back together. When I came back outside 20 minutes later, with a load of debris, she was up and walking toward the barn, I assume, looking for the bird that pushed her.

Two days later they are back into their normal formation pecking at the ground and doing turkey things. The offender is pretty easy to spot with her soot-covered head and ruffled feathers. Seeing them in their glory, I made a mental note to move turkeys over sheep, on my list of the most stupid animals ever created. The next time I pick up a catalog from the hatchery, I'll be looking at quail or pheasant or even emus..... anything but turkeys.

Where did I put that catalog anyway? "Honey, have you seen my bird catalog?......Honey!"

Author Frank Ross

Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.

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