The Turkey Dance

He dropped his flight wings on the snow trailing striped buff/brown feathers, turning sideways to lift and spread others – shafts of burnt umber dipped in black ink – transforming into a shimmering iridescent half – moon fan. Pirouetting again and again. The turkey’s pale indigo head deepened to cobalt; his wattle bled crimson under a rising sun. It was the last week in February. The Turkey Dance had begun…

 Rumblings from the forest had been occurring since mid – February along with an occasional display – incessant gobbling all day long. Turkey gobbling apparently can be heard from more than a mile away, but I could see these turkeys moving through the mixed woodlands behind/around/ in front of/below my house. This morning one grouse was also drumming. It’s the last day of March.

The turkeys returned late last spring as soon as my deranged neighbor sold his house. Although hens continued to nest and raise their chicks on this land each summer, it had been years since turkeys lived here year – round. And so, it was with great joy and thanksgiving that I welcomed home a flock. 

By mid – September about a dozen gathered under my solitary birdfeeder to peck away at fallen seed, providing entertainment for my dove Lily b while he perched in his basket at the window. Turkeys just moved in – wandering around the house foraging for abundant seeds cut and left in my garden, pecking at calendula that was still deep green. Meandering up and down my woodland paths, turkeys sunned themselves on warm days, took cover when it rained, roosted in the pines and hemlocks at night.

 Turkeys are incredibly bright, sensitive, and inquisitive, and while I was outdoors doing chores, they often followed me around. Frequently we conversed. Turkeys are ground loving birds; they are also the most delectable prey animals for hunters and other predators. 

The first snowfall came in November, by which time the flock had  doubled in size. By December, before 29 inches of snow buried the house, I already had at least 40 turkeys living here; all were roosting in the hemlocks, barreling out of the trees like cannonballs after the sun rose; all basked in pale light or took cover in the protected lowlands if the winds were too bitter, or snow was falling. Hooded monks huddled together. 

The turkeys’ daily behavior seemed to depend primarily upon the weather. After the December storm I witnessed turkeys swimming through a rolling white sea, floundering, dragging half frozen wings. There was no way these birds could scratch beneath this freezing mess to look for survival foods. A few flew into bare trees searching for buds.  

The birds were using up so much energy just trying to move. This situation was compounded by an obvious lack of food. Except for deciduous tree and hemlock buds there was nothing to eat. Concern won out; I decided to feed them.

Scattering some seed outside my bedroom window just after dawn the next morning, I called out to the group that was huddled together down below by the brook. As if they already knew what was coming about twenty made an instant raucous beeline for the window with others trailing behind. I must state that I never deliberately fed turkeys before. (see on telepathy). In minutes I had so many twittering, chortling turkeys that I had to refill my pitcher to scatter more seed.

Feeding established a new pattern – every morning, regardless of weather, turkeys would impatiently tweet and twitter until I opened my window to scatter seed. I had one male I called the king because he was so much bigger than the others. He had a habit of stretching out his long neck to stare in at me with one piercing marbled eye, especially if he wanted more food! This behavior reminded me that all turkeys had excellent vision and that staring has consequences (see I also loved watching those powerful clawed feet create trails down to the open brook; the turkeys continue to use the same snowy paths even though it’s the end of March. With feet so strong it is not surprising that turkeys can run 25 hours an hour. Even more astonishing is the fact that these birds can attain 55 miles an hour in flight.

The literature states that turkeys split up into male and female groups during the winter season. These turkeys did not. During the fall, winter and throughout March males and females continue to arrive either as one or two mixed groups, and all are roosting either around the house or down by the brook. Turkey hieroglyphics kept my snow – shoveled paths neatly packed down all winter!

 One day this week two displaying males arrived separately each followed by hens. But this behavior is not the rule; it remains the exception. Some males have been displaying on almost a daily basis for weeks, at first apparently for each other! 

The king is presently displaying with two other males that are almost as big as he is. On this last day of March gobbling began at 5:15 AM while it was pitch black with turkeys arriving for food before First Light. As soon as the males finished eating, they began displaying while the hens continued to peck at seed ignoring the show. Although the groups remain mixed the hens show no interest, even when pursued by three kings whose displays are beyond spectacular! The biggest king has a very red wattle, but all three have blue heads and drooping snoods (a horn that sticks up or skin that droops). I have read that blue heads and red wattles are indications that males are ready for mating. My observations suggest that these characteristics begin to appear as the turkeys gather for the Turkey Dance that precedes actual pairing and mating, continuing thereafter.

 Feeding behavior is shifting. The receding snow is sculpting mossy brown patches of bare ground on the sun – drenched hill. Birch and grass seeds are once again plentiful, and turkeys gather on warmer days to spend the afternoon scratching and foraging like they did last fall. Some days they don’t come for food until late afternoon or dusk. But each group that does come has an orator who clucks and twitters with annoyance if I am not immediately at the window. The turkeys are keeping irregular feeding hours around this house.

 For seven months these birds have allowed me entrance into their world; They have extended the same courtesy/privilege to my little dogs. I am slowly learning complex turkey language. They are teaching me so much about their hierarchies, their willingness to tolerate and respect differences. There are no outsiders in the turkeys’ world barring a predator. Turkey behavior demonstrates the benefits of living in genuine community.

Although I can easily photograph them through an open window while they eat, when displaying the males do not like me watching them which makes it a challenge to photograph this astonishing behavior (Recall that when outdoors I can be around them without incident; these birds know me well). If I freeze at one of the windows they continue to dance, 5000 feathers in the air, trailing wings on the snow, bodies puffed up like balloons, but they are also staring in at me even if they can’t see me… and woe to me if I get behind a camera; they always KNOW. Could this photographic reticence on their part be an adaptation the males have developed to any person that holds an object in her hands because male turkeys remember that they will soon be hunted with a gun? The more I learn the more questions I have and the less I feel I know.

I end this naturalist’s rambling leaving the story open for the next chapter whatever it may be. I do know that I will miss these birds very much when they disperse and leave as they must. Hopefully, I can look forward to meeting future mothers raising their chicks in the ferns and tall grasses later this spring…

It doesn’t escape me that many Indigenous peoples hold the turkey sacred. Turkey feathers adorn many a dancer and are an integral part of Ceremony in too many Native American tribes to name. There is a story told about Benjamin Franklin who wanted the gentle but regal turkey to become the great seal of the US instead of the eagle because the latter is a predator by nature. Even if this story is untrue, as The Franklin Institute insists, it begs a real question:

How might choosing a bird who lives close to the earth instead of one that is a soaring predator shift our relationship to nature? Instead of emulating Father sky maybe what we really need is to become sons and daughters of Mother Earth?

 I think this is a query worth pondering when we consider the tumultuous times in which we live.

Postscript: April 1, 2023

Only two hens came in to feed after the snowy white death shroud covered the ground… later around noon I heard piercing cries – a collective lament from the turkeys who had been huddled down by the brook and were now screaming in such anguish that the sound pierced my heart with a knife. A predator, human (some hunters hunt illegally around here) or perhaps a fox had killed one of their kind and all were screeching in collective grief as I watched them as they moved single file through the forest. Without a thought I raced into into the snow to follow their tracks as they fled, knowing of course, how hopeless it was… returning to the house I wept even while acknowledging that there are always two sides to the story – life and hopefully a merciful death.

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