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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Bitten Tails, Broken Legs Speak to Ma Nature’s Indifference

   Whether watching your birdfeeders through a living-room window or calling to wild turkeys from a camouflaged blind, you seldom wait long to witness Mother Nature’s harsh indifference.

   In recent weeks, for instance, my wife and I have watched a stub-tailed gray squirrel competing with its cohorts for cracked corn and sunflower seeds that fall from our birdfeeders. If you merely glance at “stubby,” you could mistake him for a young rabbit. If you’ve spent time in the Rocky Mountains, you might even think it’s another lagomorph, the pika, but Eau Claire is over 1,000 miles from suitable high-country pika habitat.

   Either way, it’s usually difficult to see this particular squirrel’s bobtail. Only when it runs broadside is the stub visible. Otherwise, the squirrel keeps its stubby tail curled under its belly when it’s sitting on its haunches while husking and eating seeds. The bobtail is about 3 to 4 inches long, with a healed wound encircling its severed end.

   Given all the road-killed squirrels on our neighborhood roads, I speculated that ol’ stubby got its tail clipped by a vehicle. But when I couldn't talk myself into that explanation, I contacted Professor John Lad Koprowski at the University of Wyoming. I remembered him from Episode 259 of the MeatEater Podcast, which dubbed him “the squirrel doctor” and said his doctoral degree covered “all things squirrel.”

   Koprowski didn’t agree with my speculation, replying in an email: “Most likely another squirrel bit the tail in a fight. About 2 to 3% of squirrels in one study had shortened tails from this cause, and often about 10% have tail damage. Fear the squirrel!”

   Anyone watching squirrels sparring at feeders know they’re tough, aggressive, foul-mouthed rodents. They forever test each other and drive off weaker or more timid cohorts. Our squirrels, for instance, never let stubby get near the best sites beneath our feeders. He only gets those prime sites when he arrives early or stays late, and dines alone.

   Unfortunately for stubby, this is his fate. Things won’t get better for him. Squirrels, like all mammals, can’t regrow their tails, no matter how much of it they lose in fights or accidents. They aren’t lizards or geckos, after all. Even though squirrels use their tails for balance when jumping and climbing, and flick it for emphasis when hollering about one grievance or another, they can endure without its full endowment.

   Whether a squirrel had a full tail or half, I wouldn’t want to get into a scrap with it. Neither do I want to wrestle or kickbox a mature male turkey, especially one with long, pointy spurs on each leg. Every year I hear about a hunter who shot a gobbler and, assuming it was dead, picked it up by its legs. Only then did he learn it had not yet begun to die.

   Glasses go flying, and faces and arms take a beating when a gobbler goes into its death throes, causing its wings and legs to thrash the startled and indecisive hunter. After all, when a turkey pummels a successful hunter, no one knows with certainty if you’ll get beaten worse if you let go or hold tight and fall atop it.

   Such passings are not gentle. A turkey’s death throes are powerful enough to break its own bones. While hunting in Chippewa County on May 8, I shot a mature gobbler about an hour after sunrise when it strutted in to intimidate my jake decoy, court my breeding-hen decoy, and charm a live, talkative hen turkey that kept gossiping with my decoys.

   While plucking the gobbler in my garage an hour later, I saw fresh blood around its upper leg, 2 to 3  inches below the hip joint. The femur was broken, and it pulled easily from the meat as I sliced the thigh from the drumstick. I found no No. 9 tungsten pellets from my .410 shotgun anywhere in the body, and so I assumed the gobbler broke its leg while flopping its last after I shot it in the neck and head.

   I emailed my assumption to Professor Mike Chamberlain, aka “the wild turkey doc,” at the University of Georgia. Chamberlain replied that I was probably right, because I would have noticed something wrong during its approach. Granted, turkeys are tough, but even the baddest gobbler can’t shrug off a broken femur when walking, strutting and pirouetting.

   Biologists who trap turkeys for research or to start flocks elsewhere often note the hazards of netting and handling these big birds. A 1996 West Virginia study reported 1.8% of trapped turkeys died or suffered severe injuries in the capture nets. Their injuries included broken legs, broken wings, gross external lesions, dislocated humerus, and internal damage to organs.

   An early 1970s paper by Florida biologists also cautioned: “Great care should be taken not to hold a turkey by one leg or one wing. They twist quickly and violently, and often dislocate or break a bone before the grip can be relaxed. Turkeys are badly defeathered if grabbed around the body.”

   I also asked hunters on Instagram if they’ve had dying turkeys break bones. The_Turkey_Guy responded: “This is why turkey trapping is so stressful for biologists. Flopping turkeys are dangerous turkeys. Gotta keep ’em secure to reduce health risk.”

   Hayden Sammak said, “ Literally happened to a turkey I shot two weeks ago in Missouri.”

   Scott Ford wrote: “The same happened to a turkey I shot with a bow last season. There was zero shot to the hips or legs.”

   And Bill Koepke replied: “It happens all the time, especially in wings. That’s a main reason poultry processors use ‘kill cones’ to restrain the bird to protect the meat quality.”

   At least my turkey didn’t suffer the indignity of other gobblers spurring, pecking and randomly abusing it while it died. Jakes and gobblers delight in such drubbings, and can’t wait to kick and pummel each other when they’re down. Odd. They always seem to be pals and buddies until one shows vulnerability.

   Then again, most of us know people who would jump and pummel a weaker coworker if they weren’t worried someone was recording the act on their smartphone.

Nature can be cruel. Squirrels sometimes lose a chunk of their tail when another squirrel bites it, and dying turkeys can suffer broken bones and beatings in their final moments. — Patrick Durkin photos

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