Ralph Duren and the calling game

He's a good ol' eastern Ozarks boy, Ralph Duren is.

"Pretty much a hillbilly" is the way Duren, 49, described his boyhood upbringin' the other day.

He said he was raised on a farm with cows and "weird-looking chickens," plus lots of wild turkeys, pheasants, quail and so forth.

Today, Duren has a menagerie of some 135 animal critters and, guess what? Those critters travel in Duren's voice box. And you won't believe your ears.

Duren can mimic the sounds of everything from spring peepers no bigger than a thumbnail to a lonely cow moose in the peak of estrus. Hey, folks, it doesn't get any better.

The first time I heard Duren's critter imitations, he was duplicating the sounds of an Ozark woods coming to life at the crack of dawn. He had whippoorwills cooing, cardinals tweeting, gobblers gobbling, coyotes yipping and somewhere over the hill an Ozark mule was bawling its heart out.

You listen to Duren and, if you're a turkey hunter, you say, "Yup, that's what it sounds like."
"I've been imitating animals since I was a little bitty kid," Duren said.

At age 9, Duren's mimicking career was launched when he entered a local wild turkey calling contest, using just his vocal cords. His third-grade teacher heard about his performance, "And the next day I was in front of the class," he said.

Years later, Duren's audience would be Jay Leno's audience. He appeared on "The Tonight Show" in 1997. Today, Duren travels his home state of Missouri as a spokesman for Missouri's Department of Conservation.

It's a job created for his remarkable voice skills.

"I call it edutainment. I entertain but also try to show how to enjoy and appreciate wildlife," said Duren, who initially started with the department as a animal control trapper.

Of all nature's voices, Duren said the most difficult to imitate are the high-pitched sounds, such as the howl of a coyote, the bugle of a bull elk or the kee-kee call of a young turkey in autumn.

"You need a soprano voice, which is out of the range for most people," he said. "For example, I couldn't do the low voice of a bull frog until I got older."

And of all the birds sounds in North America, there's only one Duren says he cannot do. Lo and behold, it's a common farm bird the guinea fowl.

"It sounds like two hands on piano, hitting the keys at once," he said.

"I like to see people laugh and enjoy the sounds I do," Duren explained. "And when parents come up and say their kids became interested in the outdoors after hearing me that's what I enjoy most."

Just don't request a hen guinea.

Ron Schara may be reached at ron@mnbound.com.

Schara's new 250-page book, "Ron Schara's Minnesota Fishing Guide" (Tristan Outdoors; $19.95) is available by clicking here or by calling (888) 755-3155.

January through March 2004, Ron Schara's show "Backroads with Ron & Raven" airs Sundays on ESPN2 at 7 a.m. ET, while his short feature of the same title airs Sundays on ESPN2 at 7:55 a.m. ET. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.