Photo by Ben Hershey

Strange Bedfellows

GROWING UP, I never thought about the daily schedule of wild turkeys. They seemed, in my imagination, to be mythical creatures who lived mostly in paintings of rural 1800s England. I did not know they were to become part of my life. Take yesterday at dusk, for example, when the local gang, maybe fifteen or so, came rolling up over our wooden bridge and hopped, one by one, onto the roof of the other house on the property. The same way they do every night. They mill around for a bit and then disappear into the lower branches of trees to go to bed.

I should take a moment, here, to describe them. A good size. Think peacock/peahen. The same sort of body. Brown, in a variegated way, and with little heads, sometimes bearing fleshy wattles that dangle from their necks. I can’t say they are majestic to look at, like some of the wild turkeys I’ve seen printed, for example, on my Thanksgiving-themed Spode plates. No broad, fanned tails or deep strains of rust in their plumage. I’m not sure I’d even call it plumage. Theirs is an ordinary blend of browns, absent of all the jewels donned by those more glamorous birds from India, once deemed to be their close cousins.

Nonetheless, I enjoy them. I like that they are very regular in their habits. That they have a sense of schedule and appointment. More, in fact, than many people! It makes me wonder what other appointments they keep. A two o’clock stop at a particular blackberry bush. Three o’clock, down to the creek. Half an hour later, a cruise through the neighbor’s vegetable patch to eat grubs. Clearly conjecture, on my part. I’m sure if I looked more closely, I would also have the opportunity to notice that the order in which they hop up onto the roof is probably also the same: turkey #1, turkey #2, and so forth. What their life lacks in regality, they seem to make up for in basic comforts and pleasures. I wouldn’t mind trying it out for a week or so.

Guajolotes, my husband calls them, the word in Spanish not unlike the sound they make. A bit gobbly, a bit alarmed. My cousin Anouk grew up on acres and acres of ranchland in rural Quebec. Sometimes, as a girl, she’d play a game with the turkeys: she’d sing something as they gathered around. Maybe “Happy Birthday” (or “Joyeux Anniversaire,” to be precise), and they would look at her, heads cocked, attentive. Then she’d veer off course, start singing out of tune, which is when the turkeys spoke up, feeling, it seems, a need to intervene. They’d raise their voices in a chorus of disapproving warbles and garbles, filling the air with ruckus. Had she only stayed on key, they would have remained a silent and attentive audience. From this, I have deduced that turkeys are sensitive, not only to schedule and appointment but also to art. They have, it seems, an awareness of pitch, or, perhaps, balance. Whether it was my cousin’s off-key bit offended their sensibilities or the disconnect between the earlier melody and the sudden veering off, I stand by the idea that turkeys are creatures of some discernment.

Now, I want to say that sometimes you think you’ve seen it all, especially in your local environment. It can seem there’s a way of things: the way gnats hover in late afternoon air, crows land on power lines, dogs bark their most plaintive barks at a certain time of evening. But I was not prepared, one day at dusk, to walk down the driveway and over our wooden bridge and to see a coyote sitting there on the other side, unmoved by my approach. Not only was he sitting there, but he was also sitting among the wild turkeys. By which I mean, he sat there like a dog on command while the turkeys pecked about in the grass, paying him no mind.

I tried shooing the coyote away so that I could cross the bridge and get the mail, but he was not interested. Finally, on maybe the third try, he stood up and headed into the grove of trees below the bridge, and—get this—the turkeys lined up and followed him. Yes. Followed him. As if he were a furred pied piper and they were drawn to his music. I peered over the side of the bridge and watched as they walked down the trail to the creek, hop-flying over to the other side, the coyote wading among them.

Later, after I’d gone inside for a while, I stepped back out to get something from the car and noticed the turkeys, gathered now under the walnut tree out in the field. When I looked closer, I could see the well-camouflaged coyote beside them, blending into the tall grass.

Could this be a predator’s brilliant strategy? To live among unsuspecting prey? Or something more benign? Once I read about a goat who lived on a farm and grew tired of living among goats. All the horn locking and one-upping. It just didn’t suit him. And so he began to spend more time among pigs, making little nests of straw to rest in, enjoying an afternoon siesta with his new brethren. Could this coyote be similarly inclined? Tired of the ways of coyotes and ready for the turkeys’ life of schedule and order?

Whatever the story, the turkeys are back up in the trees over the creek, settling in for the night; I hear them rustling about, see their bulbous silhouettes a good twenty (or more) feet up in the redwoods, set against the deepening gray sky. It gives me some small comfort to think of them. Some part of me settles, too.

 

Danusha Laméris is the author of The Moons of August and Bonfire Opera. Some of her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, APR, Ploughshares, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband in a red barn at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

 

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Comments

  1. For anyone who has only ever seen domestic turkeys (some of which at least seem to be as smart as a fencepost) it might be a surprise to note that the Wild Turkey is a highly intelligent bird. Benjamin Franklin suggested it as the symbol for the US (rather than the eagle symbol mostly stolen from the Aztecs).

    Speaking as a biologistg type person, it’s possible for a lone coyote to prey on an adult turkey but it wouldn’t be easy and the birds look out for each other. In parallel, in the high Arctic it’s not uncommon for a pack of wolves to wander through a herd of caribou chewing their cud without the caribou even bothering to stand. They all know a 3-day-old caribou can outrun a full-grown wolf, and the wolves are not necessarily ALWAYS hunting. They share the same space, constantly in each other’s company. It’s part of the circle of life.

    Mike.

  2. For a number of years up until we adopted a new pup, we had a large number of turkeys that arrived on our property regularly after discovering the cracked corn I put out for wild mallards. I began feeding them as well and they became a fixture all year round. We also saw coyotes come in to clean up some of the bird seed, usually in the early evenings, and were surprised to see the turkeys not at all concerned by the coyote’s presence. There was only one instance of aggression that we ever saw and that was when about five of the turkeys chased a coyote off. We did see the aftereffect of a predator a couple of times in scattered feathers but also discovered that turkeys will eat dead songbirds given the opportunity. Twice we had smaller birds hit a window and die and the first time I just laid the songbird down on a ridge near our house and a few minutes later saw one of the turkeys eating it. I did the same thing the second time and witnessed the same behavior. I found the turkeys endlessly fascinating and miss them terribly. Thank you for your article!

  3. Looking forward to Robin Wall Kimmerer or someone to contribute the indigenous-way-of-knowing explanation. I suspect it is quite common for predator and prey to experience periods of calm amongst each other and then, to know from well-learned signals, and with certainty, that peaceful time is past and it is hunting time again.

  4. We had a wild turkey circle the house all day for about two weeks. Sometimes she would stop and admire her reflection in our window. Near the end her visit, she was perching on my deck railing, “gobble-gobbling” earlier each morning. I finally took my dogs out (leashed) and let them bark at the bird, who flew off into the trees and never came back. I found out that the two weeks we had our visitor, it was hunting season in our state.

  5. I suspect the coyote found turkeys good company because in fields lay mice, their prime target. I have witnessed too many coyotes running away from turkeys to think that the coyote here had any sly intentions … turkeys carry mighty armor in their spurs and claws. They appear huge and menacing, even to a 45 lb. coyote when they fly in to attack, claws and spurs leading the charge.

  6. I have to comment on the description of turkeys as nondescript at the beginning of a wonderful article.
    You have to see a male in mating season– Head blue, red wattles engorged and tailfeathers spread “showing” all they have.

  7. A wonderful piece, Danusha. It always makes me happy to see your wonderful writing, both poetry and prose.

    I once saw a coyote and a turkey face off on a hillside in Tilden. I thought I was about to witness a nasty attack, but the turkey put on a show of bravado, and the coyote went slinking away.

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