Here a Gobble, There a Gobble

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When we were growing up, on a blustery November morning, my dad loaded all of us kids up in the car to go visit Raisbeck’s turkey farm on the west side of town. We were pretty chipper riding through the back streets and when we pulled into the farm, we were rewarded with pen after pen of big, white, domesticated turkeys. To ensure that we got the full experience, my dad led us into one of the barns where we got to witness, first hand, someone chopping the heads off the turkeys. Heck, he didn’t even warn us. I think he was trying to impose some farm to table mentality upon us, but let’s just say we were pretty wide eyed when we pulled into our driveway and my dad may or may have not been in the dog house and banned from further field trips with us kids for a while. It took several years for our delicate constitutions to come around to enjoying turkey on Thanksgiving morning.

The other day I was out early, at daybreak, heading past a farm when out of the fog appeared a group of turkeys. Their silhouettes breaking through the fog were reminiscent of dinosaurs as they made their way through the opening towards the woods. Deliberate, hunched over, mystical, everything you want an early morning scene to entail. I thought how lucky we all are to have had them reintroduced a few decades back and now they are quite widespread.

A friend of mine who is quite enthralled with these birds told me that the flocks we see at this time of year are now segregated by sex. So, the ladies hang out, sorority sister fashion, often in multi-generational groups with a hen or two at the helm. Their male counterparts are sequestered in another field involved in male bonding and looking pretty dashing with their waddles, aruncles (fleshy growths) and snoods (that eye-catching appendage that finds its way over the tom turkey’s beak.) Once again, the males seem to get all the cool accoutrements.

In March or April courtship begins and the males are polygamous and try to mate with as many females as possible. Another score for the testosterone enriched. They puff up their feathers, spread their tails and drag their wings. All their head appendages get into the act, making the toms a visual feast for the females. Some of them use team courtship to be successful, maybe that’s where we got the term “wing man.” After mating, the females construct a primitive looking nest out of dry leaves and lay between 10 and 14 eggs. Once the eggs hatch , the turkeys are quick to be on the move and the babies stay in the nest for less than a day before heading to the hedgerows. The females do all the childrearing and lead their young to where there is plenty of vegetable matter. They eat acorns and berries and seeds and grasses and will consume insects and small amphibians as well. In the winter, they use their strong feet and legs to dig up plant material. After a day of foraging, they like to roost up in trees for the night.

Day or night, maybe you will be lucky enough to encounter a turkey when there isn’t a knife and fork in hand. If you see a flock on the move, cue up the Jurassic Park music. Don’t underestimate the turkey and keep in mind that Ben Franklin lobbied for the humble turkey to be our National Bird, considering it a bird of courage. Courage is just what the turkey will need, especially this time of year.Turkey

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