NC youth hunter kills smoke phase, bearded hen

smoke phase bearded hen
Ethan Steinbicker of Chapel Hill had seen this rare bird on trail cameras, and thought it was a jake thanks to the bird's short beard.

Hunter had trail cam photos of the smoke phase, bearded hen

The turkey that 10-year-old Ethan Steinbicker of Chapel Hill, N.C., killed on April 21 in Alamance County was the second of his hunting career. But he’s not likely to take one to match it, no matter how long he hunts.

Steinbicker, a fourth-grader at Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill, killed a smoke phase turkey. A unique bird with striking, white-silver plumage — but not an albino. It’s about a 1-in-100 occurrence caused by a recessive genetic trait.

But throw another 1-in-50 chance in there — his turkey was also a bearded hen — and you’ve got a mighty unusual bird. It amounts to 1-in-5,000 if the math works out.

The younger Steinbicker shot the bird a couple of days after it appeared in photos from a trail-camera that his father, Eric Steinbicker, had set up. They thought the bird was a jake, an immature male turkey, because of the red coloration of its head, and because when they zoomed in on the trail-camera photo, they could see a small beard, perhaps an inch long, protruding from the feathers on its chest.

The Steinbickers walked a food plot near where the trail-camera photo was taken and came up with a smoky, white feather. So they set up a ground blind inside some cedar trees and slipped out to hunt at around 5 p.m. on April 21.

Turkey made a confusing call

“Around 7, we were about to leave, and I did a few yelps on a glass call,” Eric Steinbicker said. “We immediately heard a bird behind us. It was a very strange sound: kind of like a cross between a duck, a turkey and a chicken. We both looked at each other like, ‘What in the world could make that noise?’ It kept vocalizing and getting closer.”

Ethan Steinbicker said the turkey sounded “like it was trying to gobble but couldn’t.”

But the bird was coming in the opposite direction from where the Steinbickers were set up to shoot. Eric Steinbicker left his son in the blind, ran about 100 yards to his left and called again. He hoped the turkey would head in that direction. And when the turkey responded, he ran back to the blind.

Young hunter shot off his dad’s knee

“It worked,” Eric Steinbicker said. “The turkey headed toward the last call I made. We could hear it approaching us about 30 yards away. My son saw the bird. He had to get out of his chair to shoot off my knee to get a shot. He said, ‘Ready?’ and I told him to shoot ‘when you’re ready.’ He shot, and it collapsed instantly.”

The 12-gauge load of No. 4 shot killed the bird cleanly. But only then did the Steinbickers find out exactly how rare a turkey they had.

“We thought it was a jake when we shot it,” Ethan Steinbicker said. “But it didn’t have any spurs.”

The inch-long beard was clearly there, but the spurs weren’t — not even the bumps that many jakes have — and when they took it to Craig Hall, a taxidermist in Mebane, N.C., he agreed that it was a smoke phase, bearded hen, based not only on its lack of spurs but its tail feathers. 

“This was my second bird,” Ethan Steinbicker said. “It was different. The first one was really cool; it pounded on our decoy.”

Dan Kibler
About Dan Kibler 822 Articles
Dan Kibler is managing editor of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain. His writing and photography skills have earned him numerous awards throughout his career.

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