The Turkey Diaries

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The Massachusetts house where I've lived since 1991 is on the edge of a big patch of woods, and every once in a while there is a glimpse of deer and other wildlife. I have seen wild turkeys from time to time, but until recently it was a rare event.

One of those early encounters came in 2000 when I was surprised by the sight of a large turkey confronting a stray cat on my front lawn. I thought that was odd until I saw that the turkey was trying to protect at least three tiny chicks. Eventually the turkey clan made its escape through my neighbor's yard and into the woods. I was able to get a few turkey images with the primitive digital camera I had at the time, a Kodak DC290.

Turkey
Turkey and snow, click for more photos.

The winter of 2005-06, a flock of turkeys took up residence in the area. What follows is a chronological account of the momentous developments. Well anyway, I've been snapping photos and rather than fill up my blog with this stuff I thought it would be easier to put it all on this page.

Dec. 13, 2005 – A few days ago I saw a turkey below my bird feeder, pecking at the sunflower seeds that the chickadees and cardinals had spilled. It was in shade through a window, so the shots I got with my G6 were motion blurred and not worth posting. Today I was surprised to see a flock of eight huge turkeys in my snow-covered front yard. With the G6 mini-fiasco in mind, I took the time to find my DSLR and 70-200 f4 lens. Rather than shoot through the window, I opened my front door and hoped to get a few shots before the birds fled. These are suburban birds that must be somewhat used to humans lurking around so they did not flee immediately. I got a few shots in the front yard, and a few more after they worked their way around to the back yard and the bird feeder. I noticed that one of the turkeys had an injured leg and was having trouble keeping up with the flock. I experienced a Darwin moment as I realized this was the least likely of the flock to survive the winter.

Dec. 17, 2005 – The flock was back at dusk, 12 of them this time. I didn't see any of them limping.

March 20, 2006 – One of the classic episodes of WKRP in Cincinnati was "Turkey Drop" in 1978. Station manager Arthur Carlson dreamed up a Thanksgiving Day promotion where the station distributed free turkeys at a shopping center – by dropping them (live) out of a hovering helicopter.

Unfortunately the birds plunged like rocks after exiting the chopper, smashing through windshields and causing general panic. "The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement!" intrepid reporter Les Nessman reported from the scene. (PETA disclaimer: All of the alleged carnage took place off camera.) The episode's punchline is the bedraggled Carlson making it back to the station and uttering, "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."

Maybe turkeys can't fly in Cincinnati, but they can fly in southeastern Massachusetts. A couple of days ago I was in my back yard at dusk and heard a crashing in the treetops 40 yards away. At first I thought it was a couple of (clumsy) hawks coming in to roost for the night. Then I was able to see, and confirmed with binoculars, there were at least three big turkeys roosted 30 feet off the ground. If turkeys can't fly, how did they get up there? They aren't going to do the 24,000-mile migration of an Arctic Tern, but they can hoist themselves off the ground for short distances.

I have seen turkeys in the neighborhood before, but never in such numbers and frequency as this winter. I had the day off today, and about 7:00 was brought out of bed by an unmistakable "gobble" just outside my window. There was a spread-out flock of seven birds, and I was able to crack the window and get a few shots before they moved on.

I watched with some concern as the flock crossed the fairly busy street in front of my house. Fortunately, the maniacs who drive through my neighborhood slowed down (this time) to let the birds cross. Hey guys, just stay on this side of the road. I'll throw out some corn for you.

Turkey
Turkey in summer, click for more photos.

June 26, 2006 – Along with the cardinals and goldfinches, something a lot bigger has been lurking around the bird feeders in my back yard lately – a turkey.

Last December and again in March, I posted photos of turkey encounters in my yard. One day last winter I counted 12 birds at once. These days I'm sure there are no more than three turkeys in the vicinity, and maybe it's just this one. (Hopefully that just means they dispersed, not that the others got massacred by cars and cats.)

I gave up on vegetable gardening a few years ago because a woodchuck was getting a lot more benefit from it than I was. (It was either a woodchuck or a 15-lb. squirrel.) These days the former garden contains the bird feeders and a blanket of last fall's leaves. Late this afternoon I glanced out the window and saw the turkey visiting again. It was using its huge feet to sweep aside the leaves and find the sunflower seeds that the squirrels dislodge in huge quantities from my "squirrel-proof" feeder.

I have noticed that the turkey gets skittish when I bolt out the back patio door onto the deck, so this time I went out the front door and snuck around the house. The big dumb bird noticed me but wasn't alarmed when I slowly came around and sat on the steps of the deck to watch from about 15 yards. I snapped a few photos but I think my flash batteries were weak and I didn't get anything better than the above shot from last week. After a few more minutes of foraging, the turkey wandered off into the triangle of woods between the houses.

I'm hoping there is a turkey nest somewhere back in those woods and that eventually there will be little ones bobbing around the yard looking for seeds. I'm also hoping the neighborhood cat owners will keep their darling little killers properly restrained so this native species will have a chance to thrive.

July 17, 2006 – After not seeing any turkeys for a few weeks, there was one in the garden when I got up this morning. This afternoon it was back again, this time digging and laying down in a wallow just below the bird feeder. I tried the front door ploy again, but this time as I came around the deck the turkey took off up the hill, in the process flushing a second bird. So there are at least two turkeys still in the neighborhood.

Turkeys
Turkey in the garden,
click for more photos.

July 20, 2006 – I got up this morning at 6:20 because I'm still a wage slave, and there's that turkey again picking up sunflower seeds. I bought a bag of cracked corn intending to put it out for the turkey(s) but I need to figure out a way to keep the squirrels from stuffing themselves. Maybe a narrow wooden trough of some sort.

July 24, 2006 – A couple of days ago I poured four inches of cracked corn into a clay pot, put that into a larger black plastic pot (tree-sized) so the squirrels wouldn't tip it over, and left that in the garden. Yesterday morning I saw a side-effect of putting out cracked corn – blue jays and grackles who are too heavy to feed at the sunflower seed feeder found the pot o' corn. Finally yesterday afternoon I hit the jackpot – two turkeys were in the garden, and one had its head in the pot o' corn. Later in the day there were three birds in the garden, but I don't think any of them were the bird in the image from June. The singleton (above photo) appears to have a bigger horn on its beak, a more prominent beard, and more colorful feathers, indicating that it is a Tom turkey. Today the overcast of recent days cleared and I was able to get some shots from the blind with the 300mm lens.

July 28, 2006 – I've got a decent assortment of photos now so I dusted off the video camera for the first time in a while. I slapped together two videos, the longer one including some of the other critters that also are competing for seeds, and the shorter one just a turkey roaming the yard. See the videos page for more details.

August 17, 2006 – I saw the three turkeys together several times last weekend. I did some more comparing of recent photos with those taken last winter and spring. There's no doubt the big Tom turkeys from earlier are not among the three current birds, who are all young and/or female. I never saw any turkey hatchlings this summer. I wonder if the locals might start raising little ones next summer, so I've got that to look forward to (if I'm still around).

October 2, 2006 – It's been a while since I've made an entry, but the only glimpse I've had in recent weeks was when I was driving and a bird was crossing the street several houses down from mine. But this morning, with the color of a New England autumn starting to creep into the leaves, a flock of 10 turkeys came through my back yard. At least three of them were big Toms, with the pronounced wattle and big fanned tail. I went to find my camera, and they had completely disappeared by the time I got situated. I took the sighting as a sign that I'll have a big flock around as the weather becomes more brisk.

Nov. 8, 2006 – With the leaf cover disappearing it's now easier to see critters in the woods. Today as I was leaving for work, a flock of five turkeys wandered past in the woods to the north of me. [Insert "turkeys-need-to-watch-out-thanksgiving-is-coming" joke HERE.] I haven't thrown out corn in a while, so maybe I should do so to keep them around. Yesterday I saw two deer in the same area. I didn't see them last winter but the chewed-up bushes in my front yard were evidence that they were around.

Aug. 10, 2007 – In 11 days I will be leaving the turkeys behind and moving to South Dakota. Since my last entry nine months ago I've seen turkeys about 3-4 times. About a month ago I saw five, and I think four of them weren't quite fully grown. I saw another small group of three a few weeks ago and they all looked to be the same size, so I'm not sure whether or how many youngsters were hatched this year. I also saw a small woodchuck grazing in the back yard this summer, the first time I've seen that in a few years. And of course there are always cardinals, bluejays and other birds. My new house will be in a residential development with lots of fences and not so many trees, so I'm sure I won't see the variety of wildlife in my yard there. I'll miss that, but I won't miss the Massachusetts Route 128 traffic.

So I guess that's it for the Turkey Diaries.

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All photos 1998- by Thomas O'Neil