Chris Kirby and Matt Marrett have won thousands of dollars and widespread admiration in their field because of a talent that wouldn't mean much in most circles -- they can imitate the sound of fingernails raking over a chalkboard.
They are turkey hunters.
In more than 20 years of calling, the 29-year-old hunters have lured hundreds of the wild birds in front of the muzzles of waiting hunters by drumming, spitting, yelping and clucking -- essentially, by talking turkey.
Next week, the two national champion turkey callers will visit Howard High School to conduct a seminar on turkey hunting -- a pastime in which success can hinge on the ability to screech like a lovesick hen.
"In the wild, the gobbler gobbles and the hens come to him," said Kirby.
"What we are trying to do is reverse that cycle.
"We try to convince the gobbler that 'Hey, I'm not gonna get any closer. You've got to come over here,' " he said.
So the hunter scratches a series of yelps on a caller -- an aluminum or slate covered plate that produces sounds when struck with hollow sticks that are sweet to the ears of turkeys -- and then he waits. Dreaming, perhaps of a peek at the flaming caruncle around a wild turkey's muted white-and-blue head, waiting for the high-pitched gobble that says a male is in town.
"When you hear a turkey gobble early in the morning, it raises the hair on the back of your neck," said Chuck Lewis, a director with the National Wild Turkey Federation who has hunted more than 50 years. "It is exhilarating."
The two-hour seminar will have something for all levels of hunters. Kirby and Marrett will discuss preseason scouting, use of decoys, turkey behavior, how weather affects what birds do, and, of course, proper calling techniques.
One may wonder how much effort could go into the calls that sound to the untrained ear like squeaky wheels on a chair or rubber shoes dragging across a tile floor. Some people spend a lifetime perfecting their style.
"This is something I've been doing my whole life," said Kirby, who learned hunting from his father, Dick Kirby, who is legendary in turkey hunting circles.
"A turkey call is like a musical instrument. To make authentic turkey sounds takes practice and know-how. Turkey calling is one of the most important parts of hunting," Chris Kirby said.
Maryland's month-long turkey hunting season starts April 17 and coincides with the brief but noisy 30- to-40-day period during which wild turkeys mate. The males gobble and strut to attract hens; the hens cluck and purr to let the males know they are near.
You'd think all this distraction and noise would make the turkeys easy marks for hunters and other predators. There's hardly an animal in the woods for which turkeys aren't prey at some point. Owls, hawks, coyotes, even raccoons have been known to dine on turkey eggs or the flesh of a young fowl.
Turkeys aren't exactly formidable either. They have only a few defenses: acute vision, impeccable hearing and flight.
"The only real fighting a turkey does is from a territorial standpoint to defend themselves," Lewis said. "Other than that, they're wimps."
But it's hard to hunt a wimp. Even sex-crazed males like to stay hidden. Getting them to look for a cooing hen and strut with spread feathers before a statue-still hunter is no small feat.
In the woods, you're only as good as your call.
Hunters typically use two types of calling devices, although a few can make the sounds with their natural voices. Friction calls are hand-held gizmos that make feminine squeals when scratched. Diaphragm calls are held in the mouth and produce sounds when blown on.
Each noise represents something. Purrs and clucks mean contentment; yelps help hens locate a gobbler. Spitting and drumming are noises gobblers make to impress the ladies. In combinations, the noises shout "come and get me" to males on the prowl.
"They're very desperate and very anxious that time of year," Kirby said. "It's not like they have 365 days to mate."
The turkeys know exactly how loud each "eek" should be, and that if it's repeated, it should be the same volume and tone, Lewis said.
"It's extremely challenging," he said, adding that if it were easier, there would be more people doing it. Hunters attending the seminar can buy calls and other products and get tips from Kirby and Marrett. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door.
Pub Date: 3/04/99