The jake didn’t know what to do, but the doe did. As I stood in my tree stand, bow ready, I could feel the dilemma facing the jake, or yearling male turkey.
A few minutes earlier, he and his bachelor group had walked by my stand. An older and more experienced gobbler noticed me right away.
The jake had not, and as the other birds scooted away while giving their “Putt, putt, putt” warning calls, the jake froze behind a tree, and eventually moved into a small patch of woods in front of me, only yards away.
The escaping turkeys behind me called to the jake to join them, but you could tell from his nervous reply that he was not moving. He didn’t know what the danger was, and he was frozen in place.
He knew if he went either way — to his left or his right, trying to get back to the flock — that he would pass an opening that might mean danger.
He could not figure out how to get past those openings, even though he easily could have circled around me either way.
He perceived and understood the danger, but he could not figure out the solution to the problem.
At that moment, a doe came in, and I drew my bow and started to take aim.
Unlike the turkeys, she couldn’t see me, because her lack of color vision meant she sees in shades of gray, which is why camouflage works so well.
Most mammals rely on smell, not vision, and she was no different. She could not get my scent, and I looked like part of the tree to her. To the turkeys, I looked like a dude in a tree holding a bow.
Although camouflage can fool turkeys as well, it works best if you are hunkered down and completely still. Standing up is too much contrast for their perceptive eyes, and even the slightest movement will give you away.
Two more steps and the doe would clear the branches that protected her on the edge of an opening. She was nervous, as she had heard the turkeys’ warnings.
She didn’t know where the danger was, but she knew it was danger, and that was enough. She turned around, circled nervously behind me for a few minutes, and then walked away without ever offering a shot.
She might not have been able to perceive me using her eyes or nose, but she heard plenty from the turkeys.
She may not have completely understood the danger, but unlike the jake, her mammalian brain allowed her to work out the solution.
I’d like to say I got the jake; but in some ways, it ended better than that. The other birds got impatient, and one gobbler in particular came down the hill, perhaps to try to help the jake work through his issues.
One well-placed shot later, I had Thanksgiving dinner, and the jake had new motivation.
Like a horror movie, there is nothing like watching a victim to get your legs moving, and the gobbler had pitched down only a few feet from where the jake was hiding.
He finally made it across the opening and back to the flock.
As I waited to get down and find the bird, I couldn’t help but think about the difference between the jake and the doe.
Turkeys can see danger much better than deer, and they are quite smart in their own way, but they aren’t great at problem-solving.
Deer have excellent noses and ears, but their eyesight is not as perceptive as that of turkeys. Their brain, however, allows them to solve problems.
The jake’s issue was problem-solving. He perceived the danger; he just couldn’t work out the solution.
We see people act like turkeys all the time in Halloween movies. They know danger is just outside the door, but are frozen with fear about what to do.
They hunker down and hide rather than finding an escape route. Or, as in some recent commercials, they run into cemeteries or barns full of sharp implements to escape the local monster.
Its great fodder for a horror movie, and even deer make such mistakes on occasion, but it’s not very mammalian of them. If deer always made such poor decisions, there wouldn’t be many deer left.
In fact, the reason that deer and other mammals are such good problem-solvers is that nature has honed their abilities over time, so only the best problem-solvers survived.
The parallels with our world today are uncanny. Many of us perceive dangers around us, whether caused by disease, politicians or both.
Some of us have seen the danger with our own eyes and are horrified and scared, and act by trying to keep ourselves, and others, safe. Others freeze and feel helpless and are not sure what to do.
Some have heard about the danger, but are not convinced. Others hear the warning calls, but have been seduced by politicians and social media to think that there isn’t a problem worth solving, or that the solution is in snake oil.
Yet, we are mammals. I have poor vision without my glasses, but I can see well enough with them. My hearing has been affected by some gunshots and a lot of metal concerts, but I can still hear a turkey call and a buck grunt. Like a deer, I can perceive a lot of the world around me, even if I cannot make out everything. I can sense danger, and understand warning calls.
Like a deer, I can problem-solve and realize how to avoid danger, whether it be social distancing, wearing a mask or getting a vaccine. You can, too.
There are a lot of warning calls out there. More than 219 million infected worldwide. More than 648,000 dead Americans; that’s almost 250 times the deaths from 9-11.
The federal government is doing all it can to stop one of the worst public health catastrophes in a century, particularly by providing free vaccines, but many of us are not helping.
It’s like a horror movie where the actors won’t listen to the director, or even turn on him, as chaos reigns and nothing seems to make sense.
“Putt, putt, putt.” It’s time we all channel our inner deer and stopped acting like turkeys.
HOWARD WHITEMAN, who lives northwest of Paris, is a professor of wildlife and conservation biology in Murray State University’s Department of Biological Sciences and is director of its Watershed Studies Institute. His email address is email@example.com.