Don’t Let Your Mind Trick You Into Shooting Another Hunter

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Research into the workings of the human mind helps explain why hunting “accidents” happen

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — It starts with a hunter’s desire to see the target of his or her efforts. Then, given enough encouragement – a sequence of positive indicators such as a likely location, a sound, a movement and a flash of color – the hunter’s brain will connect the dots and fill in the missing link.

Researchers at Harvard University call it “coming to closure,” said Timothy Lawhern, hunter education administrator for the Department of Natural Resources. “Imagination with a strong desire to see a turkey produces a momentary image that isn’t real. The human mind will paint a turkey where there is no turkey. This moment, while short, lasts long enough for some to pull the trigger.”

With the opening of the Wisconsin spring turkey hunting April 16, conservation wardens are well aware of this phenomenon. DNR statistics show 80 percent of accidents during turkey hunting involve hunters mistaking other hunters for game or hunters failing to positively identify their target. In most cases the hunter has shot a member of his own party.

Science can help explain these incidents, but it doesn’t offer forgiveness. A reason is no excuse when it comes to shooting another person.

Wardens say that in each of these cases, the wrongful shooting could have been prevented if the shooter had followed the four basic safety guidelines for handling a firearm:

  • Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.
  • Always point the muzzle in a safe direction.
  • Be sure of your target and what’s beyond it.
  • Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot.

Additionally, Lawhern said, planning your turkey hunt is crucial when two or more hunters are jointly hunting in the same area and then agree to separate if birds are not spotted.

“Soon, one hunter can be stalking either the decoy or the call of the other,” Lawhern said. “The best way to avoid this situation is to have a clear understanding and agreement on the areas each hunter will hunt and then stick to that plan.”

In DNR’s 19-county west central region, Safety Warden Bill Yearman had a troubling season in 2007 with five incidents, one of them fatal. In the case of the fatality, the hunter was alone in a blind he’d built with sticks and branches at the base of a tree. His shotgun was beside him, loaded, safety off. When he decided to move, he grabbed the gun by its muzzle and as he pulled it toward him, it discharged.

Three of the incidents involved hunters shooting members of their own party. In one case, two hunters separated to stalk a flock. Later, one hunter saw his partner raising his shotgun and ducked down in the grass so as not to spook his partner’s target. The first hunter saw the movement, saw a shape in the grass and fired.

“He pops up and shoots where he thinks the bird’s head is going to be,” Yearman said. “He’s basically shooting at the unknown. It all comes back to identifying your target and what’s beyond. You can’t shoot at movement. You have to see that it’s a legal animal to shoot and you have to shoot at its head to make a killing shot. If you can’t see its head, you shouldn’t be shooting.”

The spring hunt is limited to toms (and bearded hens.) These males are identified by the long tuft of hair or “beard” extending from the front of the bird. Hunters who have mistaken other hunters for turkeys have not been able to state they saw the beard.

“If you don’t see a beard, you have no business pulling the trigger — even if it is a turkey,” Lawhern said.

Turkey hunting in Wisconsin is statistically safe. On average, since spring turkey hunting began in 1983, there have been two firearm incidents per season. Often the injuries are not severe. Fatalities are rare. Four have been recorded in 24 years. Given that there are now more than 150,000 hunters in the field each spring, that’s a good record, but, say wardens, even one shooting incident is one to many.

DNR officials attribute this to hunter education efforts, youth hunting programs and Wisconsin’s unique system of dividing the spring hunt into six, 5-day periods and controlling the number of hunters in each zone to minimize conflicts.

Still, each incident is traumatic. Wildlife officials and wardens said they will not be satisfied with anything less than a 100 percent safety record.

CONTACT: Tim Lawhern at 608-266-1317