Struggle of life

The drama between predator and prey is a constant in the woods, and includes just about every species that lives there. Here, a common garter snake caught a tree frog and is in the act of swallowing it.

While turkey hunters are chasing the big songbirds, the still-pillowed heads of non-hunters might be dreaming of wildlife cavorting without a care in the woodland world. But those visions hardly match the reality of what a hunter sees on the stage we call the spring woods.

I’ve seen many predators looking for their next meal. Several times I’ve had big black bears within spitting distance. One, as big as a couch, was 15 feet away. The closest was scarcely one step from me. A coyote once came to my calling and got the unpleasant taste of my foam turkey decoy. And twice in one morning I called bobcats — the second one spooked the gobbler I was reeling in.

I watched another predator, a garter snake, as it swallowed a wood frog. With a grip on one rear leg, it slowly worked the other leg into its slack-jawed mouth. Then little by little it pulled the helpless amphibian in until the frog was never to be seen again.

Every airborne predator must get into the act. I once saw a hawk overhead drop the tiny carcass of a woodland jumping mouse into the leaf litter near me. I’m not sure why the hawk lost its grip, but it wasn’t that his talons weren’t long enough or sharp enough, and the mouse didn’t squirm and fight his way loose. The sharp stilettos left deep punctures in the mouse’s sides, and if mice have an afterlife, that’s where his tiny spirit was. Maybe the hawk spotted a more filling meal than the rodent offered.

If your eyes are on the lookout for raptors, you’ll see them everywhere. Bare trees don’t conceal the winged predators, and field grasses still short from winter’s death-grip don’t offer hiding places for prey. Watch as you drive along any Interstate highway and you’ll see dozens of hawks in spring’s bare trees. Even more play their deadly waiting game along field edges, ready to dive-bomb whatever critter moves below.

After turkey poults hatch, hawks and owls wait for mama turkey to lead her newly hatched brood to the fields. There they learn to prey on a smorgasbord of crickets, grasshoppers and spiders galore while vulnerable to death from above.

Predators are always hungry and in constant search for sustenance. Raccoons, skunks and possums in morning twilight are true breakfast champions. When they find the home of a nesting bird they’ll scramble every egg they find.

Fisher cats, too, are busy filling their stomachs. I’ve seen the big weasels nosing along under logs or chasing squirrels up trees. People fear they take lots of turkeys, but hawks probably take as many or more.

Mother Nature must produce myriad prey animals to meet the needs of the countless predators waiting in the spring woods. That’s the arena in which the turkey hunter competes, but he has disadvantages. His hunting has a season, his hours are regulated, and he’s barred from hunting at night. He has a bag limit. And his next meal is more likely to come from the freezer or a carton, so he need not be desperate to kill something today. And many don’t hunt in the rain.

Yet almost all of our hunts end with success, even if we don’t kill something, That’s because the human hunter is a predator, but he’s also more. Hunting is about the kill and also about the experience of the hunt. It’s about the sights and the sounds witnessed only in the woods. It’s about eating, or being eaten. It’s about life as well as death, and as far as his prey is concerned, the hunter is playing the role of just one more predator to avoid. His uniqueness is that he has the power to ponder all that he sees, and to contemplate his place in the drama of life.

(When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.)

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