Straight from the Antebellum Turf Times archives (and originally selected from the archives of the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine) and with not a minute to spare as Thanksgiving is fast approaching, here’s a timely post with step-by-step instructions and how to procure one’s holiday turkey—no, not by marching down to the local market, but the old fashioned way, “by means of pens,” and building one’s own pen in the woods to trap unsuspecting fowl. Sounds quite simple, really!
But the most common method of procuring wild turkeys, is by means of pens. These are placed in parts of the woods where turkeys have been frequently observed to roost, and are constructed in the following manner.
Young trees of four or five inches diameter are cut down, and divided into pieces of the length of twelve or fourteen feet. Two of these are laid on the ground parallel to each other, at a distance of ten or twelve feet. Two other pieces are laid across the ends of these, at right angles to them; and in this manner successive layers are added, until the fabric is raised to the height of about four feet. It is then covered with similar pieces of wood, placed three or four inches apart, and loaded with one or two heavy logs to render the whole firm.
This done, a trench of about eighteen inches in depth and width is cut under one side of the cage, into which it opens slantingly and rather abruptly. It is continued on its outside to some distance, so as gradually to attain the level of the surrounding ground.
Over the part of this trench within the pen, and close to the wall, some sticks are placed so as to form a kind of bridge about a foot in breadth.
The trap being now finished, the owner places a quantity of Indian corn in its centre, as well as in the trench, and as he walks off drops here and there a few grains in the woods; sometimes to the distance of a mile. This is repeated at every visit to the trap, after the turkeys have found it. Sometimes two trenches are cut, in which case the trenches enter on opposite sides of the trap, and are both strewn with corn.
No sooner has a turkey discovered the train of corn, than it communicates the circumstance to the flock by a cluck, when all of them come up, and searching for the grains scattered about, at length come upon the trench, which they follow, squeezing themselves one after another through the passage under the bridge. In this manner the whole flock sometimes enters, but more commonly six or seven only, as they are alarmed by the least noise, even the cracking of a tree in frosty weather.
Those within, having gorged themselves, raise their heads, and try to force their way through the top or sides of the pen, passing and repassing on the bridge, but never for a moment looking down, or attempting to escape through the passage by which they entered. Thus they remain until the owner of the trap arriving, closes the trench, and secures his captives. I have heard of eighteen turkeys having been caught in this manner in a single visit to the trap.
Nothing can excel the richness and splendor of the changeable colors of the male wild turkey, whilst its great size and delicacy as an article of food, and the consideration that it is the origin of the domestic race now spread and valued over Europe, as well as our own country, render it one of the most interesting of the feathered tribes, indigenous to North America.
Excerpt from John James Audubon’s Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America, 1831, featured in American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine 5, no. 2 (October 1833): 57-59.
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