“Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” by Mark Twain – An American Classic

mark twainFirst published in Harper’s Magazine in 1906 and then anthologized in THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER AND OTHER STORIES, this short remiscence of the young Twain pursuing a clever and cunning turkey hen over hill and dale with his paltry single shot shotgun never fails to please. Told from the vantage point of maturity and equipped with a fine sense of the ridiculous (including that of his own irrational youthful persistence), Twain is at his understated best and shows a remarkable appreciation for the wiles and female huffiness of this amazing old bird.  His sympathy for her is palpable and his reverence for her clever tactics highly amusing.  She has a personality not unlike the typical American mother of his day, prim, proper, adamant and certain of her own superiority, particularly to this brash brainless young man determined to “bag her.”

I re-read it every year around Thanksgiving and always laugh and finish with a smile on my face.

Twain was the quintessential American author of his time, much loved, honored and widely read.  There has never been a popular author so verbally adept, witty, subtle and in tune with his audience as Twain.  He is a national treasure.

[BTW I have a large flock of fat turkey hens in my back pasture and observe them from my kitchen window regularly.  I can confirm they behave in much the same way as Twain’s intended prissy prey: superior, cagey, self-assured, and so very huffy feminine. So funny!]

Hope you enjoy this. We were all young once and took off after an impossible dream or two only to fall flat and wind up exhausted and humbled 🙂


When I was a boy my uncle and his big boys hunted with the rifle, the
youngest boy Fred and I with a shotgun–a small single-barrelled shotgun
which was properly suited to our size and strength; it was not much
heavier than a broom. We carried it turn about, half an hour at a time.
I was not able to hit anything with it, but I liked to try. Fred and
I hunted feathered small game, the others hunted deer, squirrels, wild
turkeys, and such things. My uncle and the big boys were good shots.
They killed hawks and wild geese and such like on the wing; and they
didn’t wound or kill squirrels, they stunned them. When the dogs treed
a squirrel, the squirrel would scamper aloft and run out on a limb
and flatten himself along it, hoping to make himself invisible in
that way–and not quite succeeding. You could see his wee little ears
sticking up. You couldn’t see his nose, but you knew where it was. Then
the hunter, despising a “rest” for his rifle, stood up and took
offhand aim at the limb and sent a bullet into it immediately under
the squirrel’s nose, and down tumbled the animal, unwounded, but
unconscious; the dogs gave him a shake and he was dead. Sometimes when
the distance was great and the wind not accurately allowed for, the
bullet would hit the squirrel’s head; the dogs could do as they pleased
with that one–the hunter’s pride was hurt, and he wouldn’t allow it to
go into the gamebag.

In the first faint gray of the dawn the stately wild turkeys would be
stalking around in great flocks, and ready to be sociable and answer
invitations to come and converse with other excursionists of their kind.
The hunter concealed himself and imitated the turkey-call by sucking
the air through the leg-bone of a turkey which had previously answered
a call like that and lived only just long enough to regret it. There is
nothing that furnishes a perfect turkey-call except that bone. Another
of Nature’s treacheries, you see. She is full of them; half the time she
doesn’t know which she likes best–to betray her child or protect it.
In the case of the turkey she is badly mixed: she gives it a bone to be
used in getting it into trouble, and she also furnishes it with a trick
for getting itself out of the trouble again. When a mamma-turkey answers
an invitation and finds she has made a mistake in accepting it, she does
as the mamma-partridge does–remembers a previous engagement–and goes
limping and scrambling away, pretending to be very lame; and at the same
time she is saying to her not-visible children, “Lie low, keep still,
don’t expose yourselves; I shall be back as soon as I have beguiled this
shabby swindler out of the country.”

turkey henWhen a person is ignorant and confiding, this immoral device can
have tiresome results. I followed an ostensibly lame turkey over a
considerable part of the United States one morning, because I believed
in her and could not think she would deceive a mere boy, and one who
was trusting her and considering her honest. I had the single-barreled
shotgun, but my idea was to catch her alive. I often got within rushing
distance of her, and then made my rush; but always, just as I made my
final plunge and put my hand down where her back had been, it wasn’t
there; it was only two or three inches from there and I brushed the
tail-feathers as I landed on my stomach–a very close call, but still
not quite close enough; that is, not close enough for success, but just
close enough to convince me that I could do it next time. She always
waited for me, a little piece away, and let on to be resting and greatly
fatigued; which was a lie, but I believed it, for I still thought her
honest long after I ought to have begun to doubt her, suspecting that
this was no way for a high-minded bird to be acting. I followed, and
followed, and followed, making my periodical rushes, and getting up and
brushing the dust off, and resuming the voyage with patient confidence;
indeed, with a confidence which grew, for I could see by the change of
climate and vegetation that we were getting up into the high latitudes,
and as she always looked a little tireder and a little more discouraged
after each rush, I judged that I was safe to win, in the end, the
competition being purely a matter of staying power and the advantage
lying with me from the start because she was lame.

Along in the afternoon I began to feel fatigued myself. Neither of us
had had any rest since we first started on the excursion, which was
upwards of ten hours before, though latterly we had paused awhile after
rushes, I letting on to be thinking about something else; but neither of
us sincere, and both of us waiting for the other to call game but in no
real hurry about it, for indeed those little evanescent snatches of rest
were very grateful to the feelings of us both; it would naturally be
so, skirmishing along like that ever since dawn and not a bite in the
meantime; at least for me, though sometimes as she lay on her side
fanning herself with a wing and praying for strength to get out of this
difficulty a grasshopper happened along whose time had come, and that
was well for her, and fortunate, but I had nothing–nothing the whole

More than once, after I was very tired, I gave up taking her alive, and
was going to shoot her, but I never did it, although it was my right,
for I did not believe I could hit her; and besides, she always stopped
and posed, when I raised the gun, and this made me suspicious that
she knew about me and my marksmanship, and so I did not care to expose
myself to remarks.

I did not get her, at all. When she got tired of the game at last, she
rose from almost under my hand and flew aloft with the rush and whir
of a shell and lit on the highest limb of a great tree and sat down and
crossed her legs and smiled down at me, and seemed gratified to see me
so astonished.

I was ashamed, and also lost; and it was while wandering the woods
hunting for myself that I found a deserted log cabin and had one of
the best meals there that in my life-days I have eaten. The weed-grown
garden was full of ripe tomatoes, and I ate them ravenously, though I
had never liked them before. Not more than two or three times since have
I tasted anything that was so delicious as those tomatoes. I surfeited
myself with them, and did not taste another one until I was in middle
life. I can eat them now, but I do not like the look of them. I suppose
we have all experienced a surfeit at one time or another. Once, in
stress of circumstances, I ate part of a barrel of sardines, there being
nothing else at hand, but since then I have always been able to get
along without sardines. ##

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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4 Responses to “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” by Mark Twain – An American Classic

  1. Thanks for the reminder of a good tale, by Twain. One of my favorites! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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