Except for the sandy facial hair, the brown buggy eyes and the curled lips that seem almost double-jointed, Ralph Duren might be mistaken for a wild turkey. Or a barn owl. Or a coyote.
Squawking, gobbling and hooting, Duren, a 49-year-old public relations specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, has become well known in mid-Missouri as an animal caller, a skill that is making him famous throughout the nation. He plans to branch further out of Missouri, after retiring in another year, and make a living imitating the calls of the wild.
For now, though Duren is steadily becoming famous, he still focuses on entertaining people for the Missouri Conservation Department.
On a recent afternoon, Duren mimicked a range of birds, mammals and amphibians for about two dozen residents of South Hampton Place, a Columbia nursing home at 4700 Brandon Woods.
“So many of those folks, they can’t get out – so I kind of got a weak spot for them,” Duren said of the nursing home residents, as he pointed to his heart and smiled.
Many of Duren’s animal sounds have also been heard by Hollywood. During the preliminary competition of the 1997 World Quail Calling Contest, Duren was interviewed by a local broadcaster who contacted NBC studios about his talent. He was later contacted by the producer of the weird talent section of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” which led to Duren’s appearance on the show Thanksgiving night 1997.
Duren has been a regular on Pepper and Friends” for 15 years, and has appeared on “The Late Late Show” with Tom Snyder, ABC’s “Good Morning America,” “CBS This Morning,” TNN’s “Prime Time Country,” the BBC, Turner Broadcasting System and the cable-television shows “The HomeLife” and “Swan’s Place.”
In addition to his numerous appearances on talk shows and news and radio stations nationwide, Duren has won 50 to 60 animal calling contests, including the Grand National Wild Turkey Gobbling Contest and the World Quail Calling Contest.
Duren has been reproducing nature’s sounds, from whip-poor-wills to frogs to otters, since his kindergarten days. “It started with turkeys and went on from there,” he said. “I learn new ones every year.”
Growing up on a farm south of Festus, he first experienced the magic of the outdoors with his father. By age five, Duren had become an accomplished turkey mimic. He now can mimic about 135 distinct creatures.
“My dad took me hunting, fishing, and trapping. That’s just what we did for fun,” Duren said. “My summers were fishing, frogging and squirrel hunting. Winter time was deer hunting, quail, rabbit hunting and trapping. Spring was turkey hunting. There was something to do all year.”
Though Duren wasn’t aware of it as a young boy, he had a real talent in disguise. He began to realize that “most people can’t do it with their voice,” he said. Instead, he said, they have to run down to the nearest sporting goods store to purchase a box call to round up the wildlife.
Sometimes mistaken for a comedian, Duren’s facial expressions are also a hit with audiences. However, he does not view his talent as merely comic relief. Duren is on the road constantly, presenting more than 250 “edutainment” programs a year. He performs at numerous venues across Missouri, including fairs, nursing homes and schools. After many of his programs, Duren has received immediate gratification for his efforts.
“I’ve been driving away from a school several blocks away where kids are walking down the sidewalk making animal noises, looking up for birds,” he said. “But the amazing thing is they walk down that same sidewalk everyday, walking past all kinds of birds and never paid any attention.”
A father of five, Duren instills his love for wildlife upon his children. However, like most parents, Duren occasionally embarrasses his kids. Julia, one of Duren’s three daughters, does not appreciate her father’s hooting and hollering when he is visiting her in Kansas City.
“Every time we get close to her school, she makes me promise, ‘Dad, I do not care who asks you, do not do any animal sounds,’” Duren explained while laughing.
Likewise, Duren’s wife, Cheryl, does not think that every place is appropriate for animal calling. Last October, the Durens were at a program for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Duren was asked to help entertain the guests, including Thurgood Marshall Jr., and Nelson Rockefeller Jr. While walking back to their hotel, Duren and his wife were approached by a woman who they later discovered to be Ted Turner’s daughter.
Jennie Garlington Turner called her husband, who is heavily into turkey hunting, and asked Duren to perform some of his calls.
“I was just howlin’ and carrying on into a cell phone walking down Park Avenue,” Duren said. “My wife was like ‘Oh my God.’”
But Duren’s unique voice patterns and humor have touched the lives of many less-famous people, including Cheri Martin, a resident of South Hampton Place .
“He is an extremely talented man, I have always wanted to meet him,” Martin said. “I think it’s (Duren’s talent) a gift.”