Welcome to the host site for outdoor writer Steve Sorensen’s “Everyday Hunter” columns. For a complete index of all columns, go to EverydayHunter.com.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Keeping Kitty In Is For the Birds

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., April 29, 2006.)
As a hunter, I appreciate the cat's desire
to hunt for the pure pleasure of it. But
while laws and regulations control my hunting,
cats enjoy open season 24 hours a day,
365 days a year and they prey indiscriminately.
During the next 4 weeks, more than 200,000 Pennsylvania hunters hope to harvest a wild turkey gobbler. By the standards of efficient predators, their chances of success are poor. They will take only about 40,000 of the big songbirds – less than a 20% success rate.

More efficient predators have already taken countless birds this spring. We see these predators every day, and any of us who have had a close association with them have likely at one time or another seen its prey deposited on our doorsteps. Yes, I'm talking about "Felinus domesticus" – ordinary house cats.

Thirty percent of Americans share their homes with more than 60 million cats. Cats have replaced dogs as the number one pet, partly because they're so easy to take care of. We seldom need to bathe our cats. Their sandpaper tongue is a thorough washcloth. We don't need to let them out for their daily constitutional. They use the litter box and we clean it once a week. We don't need to take them for a walk. They're not leash-friendly, and most of them get all the exercise they care to have on their own.

We don't even need to feed and water them. Automatic food and water dispensers can take care of that chore, and make it easy to leave a cat at home for an extended period. Business travelers or vacationers must put Fido into a kennel, but they can confine Felix to a room with food, water and litter box. It's no wonder that cats are the pet of choice in our mobile, fast-paced society.

Besides their ease of care, cats are warm, cuddly, and make that comforting but mysterious rumbling sound when they're at peace with their world.

We usually think of dogs as service animals. They fetch, lead the blind, and guard our property. Cats are useful, too. They rid our homes of mice. But Felix kills more than rodents. Some people who would object to hunters shooting turkeys have no problem with their cats terrorizing neighborhood songbirds just returning from a long northbound flight to find a mate, furnish a nest and raise a family.

Some estimates are that the number of feral cats is equal to the number of house cats, so in all perhaps 120 million cats roam the country. Each one is a soft, furry, efficient hunter -- and many of them kill regularly. They exterminate countless fledglings as well as ground nesting adult birds.

Even though we may excuse them by saying they're only doing what instinct drives them to do, the unnaturally high feline population takes many of the animals that owls, hawks, weasels, foxes and other animals prey on. Cats, being subsidized by humans, have a huge advantage over wild animals for available prey.

As cat populations have risen, songbird populations have declined. Although loss of habitat is one reason, statistics show that our feathered friends are too often the special guests at kitty's dinner. A 4-year study at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1990's found that the estimated 1.4 million to 2 million cats that range freely in rural areas of that state alone kill 31.4 million small mammals and 7.8 million birds a year. In an effort to avoid appearing extreme, that study was deliberately conservative in its numbers.

Some might think I'm just another cat hater, but I've owned a cat in the past and I've grown fond of them. As a hunter, I appreciate the cat's desire to hunt for the pure pleasure of it. But while laws and regulations control my hunting, cats enjoy open season 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and they prey indiscriminately. I don't like to see domestic or feral cats out in the woods, but it's a people problem more than a cat problem.

A few locales have passed confinement ordinances similar to leash laws for dogs, but that's not likely to happen in rural areas. What can be done? Accept it as a fact: cats are detrimental to the bird population. Keep kitty indoors as much as possible. Avoid letting your cats out in the early morning or late evening, and monitor them closely in the spring and summer -- the times when prey is most vulnerable. Consider attaching a bell to the collar of your cat. It won't always warn birds of the cat's approach, but it sometimes will. Give your cat the close attention it needs -- it's for the birds.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

What's in your turkey vest?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., April 15, 2006.)
If I were to carry everything
the magazines advertise, I'd need a
wheelbarrow. The list is endless.
Admit it. If you're like most turkey hunters, you love gadgets. The proof is in the turkey hunting magazines. Check out the ads and you’ll see stuff that makes sense and stuff that doesn’t. All of it has a believer behind it who knows the market and has a pretty good idea what will lure turkey hunters into parting with their money.

Some products are better sellers than others, and they all go from the pages of a catalog or the shelves of a store into a turkey hunter's vest somewhere -- at least until they’re proven to be of little value. I'll be honest -- one of the most memorable low value items ever to occupy a pocket in my vest is the silent dog whistle gobbler locator.

I’m a little embarrassed to say I bit on that one. But you can probably also confess to buying a useless trinket or two that didn’t help your turkey hunting. Fortunately, the dog whistle didn’t set me back much. Unfortunately, it didn't even work on my dog.

Almost all turkey hunters use a vest, especially those who are into gadgets. Vests can be simple and cheap or complex and very expensive. A $20 economy model from Wal-Mart will get the job done, but a $200 luxury version from a specialty catalog has lots of bells and whistles that appeal to many hunters. Vests are like deer rifles; overkill isn’t necessary, and you can get everything you need at a comfortable price somewhere in the middle.

What’s important about a vest is that it keeps all those gadgets stowed away, ready to head out to your favorite ridge to listen for the big thunderbird to sound off. The gear your vest totes to that ridge top is as personal as the vest itself, and no two hunters will agree on its content. Hunters don’t agree even on many common sense items. Not everyone carries a knife. I know because sometimes I don’t carry one when turkey hunting.

If I were to carry everything the magazines advertise, I'd need a wheelbarrow. The list is endless: a locator call, multiple turkey calls, flashlight or headlamp, extra batteries, GPS or compass, snacks, rope or cord, decoys, extra ammo, bug spray, raingear, extra gloves and head net, matches and fire starters, cell phone, emergency kit. Almost everyone agrees that an orange hat and an orange tree band should be on the list for safety -- but other than that lots of stuff should stay home.

Still, most hunters overlook a few things that I consider essential. One is a pair of pruning shears. Nearly every time I sit down to call a turkey I notice a twisted sapling or piece of brush in line with the turkey’s likely approach route. Snapping it off might make too much noise. My pruners make short work of it.

My water bottle is another essential. Too many times I’ve reached a listening spot, heard a gobbler far away on the next ridge, climbed down one hillside in the dark and up another before fly-down time, and watched the gobbler pitch off his roost and head the other way. Then I’ve hiked back down and back up, returning to my truck in time to get to work by 8:00 AM. On mornings like that I’m glad to have 16 ounces of water. A candy bar helps, too.

I also stow a camera in my vest. The best place to take a photo of your gobbler is usually at the kill sight, and if you hunt alone you also need a way to hold the camera. I use an UltraPod -- a lightweight, folding tripod. I can set up the picture and use the camera’s timer to snap a photo.

I also take a few wet wipes or a wet washcloth, sealed in a zip-lock bag. I prefer to pluck and eviscerate after I get home, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get bloody hands while in the woods. Sometimes a turkey whose head is rocked by a load of number 5’s won’t stop bleeding, and I’ll need to wipe off my hands even if I don’t do the field dressing.

Finally, I carry a few safety pins. They come in handy for securing dangling straps, attaching my tag to a gobbler’s leg, pinning lanyards to my vest so they’re not draped around my neck, and making minor repairs.

I could claim I'm not a gadget guy, but I'm still on the lookout for the next great turkey hunter marketing ploy. What's in your vest?

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Solving the deer problem through mythology?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., April 1, 2006.)
The expectation is that a half whitetail, half mule deer
hybrid will be better suited to the conditions
that prevail in modern Pennsylvania.
Man has always had a fascination with hybrid creatures.

Horror stories and science fiction tell of bizarre combinations of man and beast, such as Wolfman and "The Fly." Our superheroes, including Spiderman and Batman, combine the traits of animal and human to generate superhuman powers. The ancient Greeks had their mythological creatures, too; the centaur, the half man and half horse, is one of several.

Now, the automobile insurance industry is taking a page out of mythology to address some of the problems that Pennsylvania's hunting culture faces. The secret plan is a multi-year experimental program to transplant mule deer bucks to a limited range in northern Pennsylvania in hopes that they will crossbreed with whitetail does. The expectation is that a half whitetail, half mule deer hybrid will be better suited to the conditions that prevail in modern Pennsylvania.

The two main species of deer that inhabit North America are the whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus). The whitetail/mule deer hybrid has a face that looks like a mule deer, and an antler configuration that looks like a whitetail. Its tail is white on the underside, and dark brown or black on the topside. The hybrid runs like a mule deer, with an evasive tactic of peculiar pogo-stick-like bouncing called "stotting" that makes it less susceptible to predators. It literally bounces over obstacles such as large boulders, which predators must go around.

The goal of the program is to address several problems all at once. One is the continuing decline in hunting license sales. Not long ago, Pennsylvania led the nation in sales. Now it lags behind Texas and Michigan, and the decline will probably continue. The insurance industry recognizes that fewer hunters are not going to be able to keep a prolific whitetail population in check.

Another problem is constant pressure on the Pennsylvania Game Commission to reverse its herd reduction policy. Although the deer herd has finally been reduced to a level that satisfies the auto insurance companies, the chief stakeholders in the PGC's policy are still the hunters, and many of them continue to advocate for a higher deer population.

The third problem is the disappointing results of the current antler restriction policy. Bigger deer are being harvested, but by a small number of hunters. Many hunters are not satisfied with giving up the opportunity to kill a 4-point buck every year in exchange for the opportunity to kill an 8-point every 5 or 6 years.

Wildlife biologists have been studying whitetail/mule deer hybrids in a few western locations where they naturally interbreed, and some believe that the hybrid holds the answer to these problems. Why?

First, whitetail/mule deer hybrids grow larger antlers sooner. The hybrid produces branched antlers with 4 points to a side at a younger age. This will give hunters more opportunities to harvest a buck under the antler restriction policy, and halt the common criticism that antler restrictions have not produced enough well developed bucks.

Second, the hybrid will make the herd reduction policy irrelevant because it is far less prolific than the whitetail. While whitetail deer tend to overpopulate their range wherever they exist, whitetail/mule deer hybrids are self-limiting because hybrids suffer greater fawn mortality. They will never fill the niche as completely as whitetails do.

Third, with a self-limiting population of deer, Pennsylvania won't need to reverse the decline in hunting license sales. Greater fawn mortality means that the whitetail/mule deer hybrid won't be dependent on hunting as the chief means of population control.

Why isn't this scheme viewed as a risk? Because it's the direction Mother Nature is taking anyway. The introduction of mule deer to Pennsylvania merely accelerates what is happening in western states where whitetail and mule deer habitats overlap. As land use changes, populations of both species are forced together in order to take advantage of available habitat, and where that happens they are interbreeding successfully.

Members of the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society (yes, it actually exists) are opposed to the plan. A spokesman says, "Because the bouncing gait of the hybrid deer will make it difficult for 'Bigfoot' to prey on them, the hybrid deer will further endanger the existence of this large, secretive primate."

Officials in the insurance industry are mostly mum about their plan, but they believe it will definitely reduce car-deer collisions. One has commented, "The bouncing pattern of the hybrid deer will mean safer roadways. The deer will bounce right over cars, saving the lives of deer as well as the occupants of cars."

What can the everyday hunter in Pennsylvania do about this? First, he should realize that today is April Fool's Day.