How Hunting Accidents Happen

I heard the turkey gobbling in the distance and covered more than a half mile at a fast walk in the dark to reach him. I could see the tom in the branches of the tree from where I set up, and watched him pitch down in my direction. He went silent when he hit the ground and I watched expectantly for a few minutes until I saw him, 50 or so yards away. I could see the head, anyway, and the outstretched neck, but foliage covered the rest of the bird, and in the early morning gloom I couldn’t see enough color to tell if it was a tom or hen.

In my defense, I did not shoot the tree I mistook for a turkey this spring. As I said, I couldn’t see a beard, and it was at the very edge of range. But I was sure it was a turkey for almost a minute. I could see it crane its neck to look for me. My heart rate went up, the way it does when I see a tom. I waited for it to come closer, but it couldn’t, because the “head” was a white patch on the tree’s bark.

Having been turkey hunting for almost 30 years, it’s embarrassing to admit I was fooled by a tree, but I was. And, I’m not alone. According to “White Paper: Mistaken-for-Game Hunting Accidents – A Human Factors Review Prepared for Hunter Safety Lab” by Kyle Wilson and Karl Bridges, it’s more likely for experienced hunters to be involved in “mistaken for game” accidents* than it is for newer hunters to make the same mistake.

The authors of the study point to heuristics and cognitive bias as the phenomena behind “mistaken for game” shootings in the study. Heuristics refers to the process by which our brain fills in missing information using prior experiences and memories. The more experienced you are, the better you become at filling in the blanks, which is why we can see game before novices can. It was an important ability for our ancestors, who did not need to see an entire saber-toothed tiger before deducing that running away was a good idea. Mix in cognitive bias – systematic errors in thinking, ie, if you expect to see something, that’s what you’re likely to see – and add some buck or turkey fever, and it’s easy to see a turkey where there is none. It’s even possible, say the authors, for your mind to filter out blaze orange if it doesn’t fit with the rest of the picture your mind forms.

The authors cite a case in New Zealand where an experienced hunter shot a friend at fairly close range in the woods. The two had split up, and the hunter did not expect to see his friend. He did expect to see a deer, and that’s what his mind saw. The scary part is that he didn’t fire a hasty “sound shot” or shoot a glimpse of motion in the brush, but quite the opposite. The shooter looked at his friend for minutes, convinced he was a deer. He even moved so he could get a better view, and took his shot deliberately. His mind interpreted ferns as antlers, a backpack as the deer’s back and his friend’s red hair as part of the stag’s hide. He told investigators afterward he watched the “deer” move its head up and down as it fed.

I’d say the solution is to always glass your target, but sometimes even a magnified view doesn’t prevent an accidental shooting. The one person I know who was shot while hunting had split up to do a drive for a friend confined to a wheelchair. Steve made his loop and came back to see his friend looking at him through his scoped shotgun forty yards away. So he waved, and his friend shot him in the hand.

Many “mistaken for game” shootings involve people in the same group. Communicate with the rest of your party and if you make a plan, stick with it. Appearing unexpectedly in front of someone expecting to see a deer is a bad idea. If you see another hunter, speak, don’t wave. Motion can be misinterpreted. Your voice won’t be.

The real answer is to be aware that anyone, even you or your trusted hunting partner, can mistake a person (or a tree) for game, and be even more careful, even when you think you’re already being careful.

*Hunter safety people insist we call hunting “accidents” hunting “incidents,” but as there is nothing incidental about being shot, I prefer “accident.”