Male hairy woodpecker

When I pulled into the faculty parking lot at Curry College this morning, I wasn’t surprised to see a male hairy woodpecker clinging to a nearby tree, as last week I’d seen the holes he’d hammered. Sometimes birds reveal themselves directly, and other times they reveal themselves by what they leave behind.

Here be woodpeckers

This particular hairy woodpecker wasn’t shy, continuing to cling to his tree while I rolled down my car window and took a picture from the driver seat, using my car as an impromptu bird-blind. (I can tell this fellow is a male by the red spot on the back of his head, and I can tell he’s a hairy rather than downy woodpecker because his bill is as long as his head is wide: a downy’s bill isn’t nearly as long.)

Only after I’d gotten out of my car did the woodpecker startle and fly, scolding me with emphatic call-notes: “Peeeek! Peeeek!” Now that I know who’s been drilling the trees by the faculty parking lot at Curry College, you can be sure I’ll be on the lookout for him and his mate.

Great Blue Hill

I got stuck in traffic on my way to Curry College this morning, so while I sat in my car on Interstate 93 waiting to exit onto Route 138 in Canton, I shot a handful of photos of the dusting of new snow on nearby evergreens as well as the snowy summit of Great Blue Hill: a landmark I pass every time I drive to Curry, but I seldom slow down and study.


Years ago when I lived in Randolph, I used to regularly climb to the summit of Great Blue Hill, parking at the Trailside Museum and taking the Red Dot trail to Eliot Tower and beyond. Eliot Tower affords good views of Boston, and if you continue further on the Skyline Trail, the views are even better, the wind-swept patches of exposed granite making you feel as if you were atop a mountain rather than a hill.

Just a dusting

In the summer, I’d hear prairie warblers singing atop Great Blue Hill, as the short, scrubby trees there are their preferred habitat. Prairie warblers have a distinctive buzzy song that ascends the chromatic scale: a song I’ve never heard anywhere else and thus associate exclusively with Great Blue Hill.

How far the mind can wander while one’s body is stuck in traffic, thoughts ascending up the chromatic scale like a brilliant buzzing bird.

White-breasted nuthatch

Yesterday there was a white-breasted nuthatch perched in one of our backyard trees, motionless and fluffed against the cold. I was unloading bags of ice melt I’d bought in advance of our latest storm, and the nuthatch was clearly watching me: not moving, just softly tooting as if talking to himself.

Nuthatch closeup

I got my camera out of my purse to take a picture, and the nuthatch didn’t move. I took a few zoomed-in pictures, and the nuthatch didn’t move, so I stepped in closer and took more photos–and still, the nuthatch didn’t move. I eventually returned to unpacking the car, and the nuthatch eventually flew away, off to do his birdy business. But for a few expectant moments, that nuthatch and I shared a face-to-face encounter: Hello, whatcha doing?

Technicolor hippies

As I type these words, a rafter of wild turkeys is scratching for seed beneath our backyard birdfeeder: two hens and their combined offspring, a true Boston marriage. We didn’t see much of our resident turkeys in the spring and early summer, when the hens were incubating eggs, but now that the poults are leggy and ravenous, we’ve seen them and their mothers more frequently.

Fantastic 'fro

The other day, J and I saw a small group of tom turkeys crossing a side street about a half mile from our house, one striding slowly in front of the other like the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. This is how turkeys live in August: the females band together to shepherd their combined young, and the males hang out singly or in loose-knit throngs, fattening up for breeding season. It’s a strict division of labor where the females look after the poults and the males do little more than strut and breed.

Birth-control pill chastity belt

A week or so ago, J and I watched an episode of the CNN documentary The Sixties that discussed the women’s movement. The episode discussed the advent of the birth control pill, Gloria Steinem’s stint as a Playboy Bunny, and the one-two punch of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. Once you acknowledge that some housewives are unhappy tending children and doing housework and some women are enjoying sex outside the bonds of marriage, you’ve crossed a revolutionary divide. Everything is possible between the sexes because everything has been called into question.


A strict division of labor between tom and hen turkeys has worked for eons: just look how many turkeys there are! But human beings aren’t turkeys. We no longer live as hunter-gatherers, when it made sense for larger, stronger males to pursue large game while bands of women gathered nuts and berries, their babies and children in tow.

His and hers

Nearly all of today’s jobs can be accomplished by either gender, and the job of gathering groceries knows no sex. This means each household is free to divide chores however works best for them, individually. In our home, J does yard work and cooks, and I do dishes, take out the trash, and shop for groceries. J and I don’t divide these chores by gender; instead, we’ve settled upon a routine that works for us, and we don’t expect that routine to be universally applicable to other couples. We’re talking about conscious choices, not binding cultural rules.


I don’t know if male and female turkeys are content with their lots in life: I suspect turkeys live the way they do because they don’t have much choice. Does an abundance of choice make us humans more or less happy in the long run? That’s a question for philosophers to decide. All I know is that once a choice is offered, you can’t take it back. Once you know other options are available, you’ll always want the freedom to choose between them.

Since I don’t have any decent photos of turkey hens and poults that have been visiting our backyard bird feeder, the photos illustrating today’s post come from last summer’s groovy MFA exhibit of sixties clothing, Hippie Chic, which I blogged last December.

Northern flicker - June 6 / Day 157

This morning while I was taking out the trash, I happened to look up at the very moment a Northern flicker was flying from one pine to another, the yellow undersides of his wings flashing in the morning light. We’ve seen flickers in our backyard before: although flickers are woodpeckers, they love to forage on the ground for ants, so suburban yards and parks with mowed lawns provide ideal habitat. While larger woodpeckers prefer deep woods, flickers don’t mind living on the woodsy edge of suburbia, where ants and other insects abound.

Flicker in foreground; flying sparrow in background

After this morning’s flicker disappeared into the trees, he squealed then cackled. Flicker squeals (a call often transliterated as “kyeer”) sound similar to the calls of red-bellied woodpeckers, and their high pitched cackles sound similar to those of pileated woodpeckers. Whenever I hear a flicker, in other words, I automatically think of the other woodpeckers it could be, with “flicker” being (unfortunately) the least exciting alternative.

Flicker in foreground; mourning doves in background

Compared to seeing a red-bellied or pileated woodpecker, seeing a flicker isn’t hugely exciting: these are, after all, birds that don’t mind frequenting yards and parks. But on a day when all you’re doing is taking out the trash, just happening to look up at the very moment something other than a sparrow or grackle flies by feels fortuitous: a flash of fortune on an otherwise normal morning.


Today J and I walked to Newton Centre, where we had lunch at Johnny’s Luncheonette. J typically has the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s off: work is slow then, with many of his co-workers taking the remainder of their vacation days. J and I typically don’t travel for the holidays, so we use this “off but at home” time to rest, take lunchtime walks, and otherwise recharge.


On our walk home from Johnny’s, we stopped at a new beer store in Newton Centre, where J bought a bottle of his favorite Belgian beer and I bought a disc of my favorite Mexican chocolate. It was a small indulgence on a day when we hadn’t planned to go shopping: a decision on a whim to duck into a store we’d never explored before.


Had J and I not stopped for impromptu beer and chocolate on our way home from lunch, maybe we would have missed the half dozen turkeys we saw foraging in someone’s yard near the intersection of Beacon and Walnut Streets: a busy stretch of road with enough woodsy fringe to harbor our local yardbirds.

And if you’ve ever wondered whether wild turkeys perch on branches rather than simply strutting like chickens, they do indeed take to the trees when the impulse strikes them. So on this second day of Christmas, instead of contemplating a partridge in a pear tree, J and I were treated to the sight of a turkey in a crab-apple tree.

And a turkey in a crabapple tree

Bird feeder visitors

This morning when I was taking our beagle, Melony, out to our backyard dog pen, we startled two wild turkey hens who had been sampling the seed beneath our bird feeder. J and I have seen turkeys in our yard before, but this was the first time Melony had seen one, so I expected her to lunge after them, as she does with our backyard bunnies. Instead, the turkeys crouched in their tracks, and Melony didn’t even strain at her leash as we walked past. Turkeys aren’t known for being particularly bright, but apparent these birds have learned that dogs on leashes aren’t a threat worth ruffling ones feathers over.

Turkey trio

Earlier this week, I read an Audubon magazine article about an unidentified threat facing wild turkeys. (I’d link to the article, but it’s not posted online.) When I was a teenage birder in the 1980s, wild turkeys were rare, having been hunted to near extirpation in much of their native range. In the decades since, turkeys have been successfully reintroduced throughout much of the United States, leading many people to see them as the quintessential conservation story. The magazine article I read, however, was titled “Turkey Troubles: The Ups and Downs of an American Icon,” and it described an unexplained (and thus troubling) recent decline in turkey populations across the country. Turkeys used to be rare, then they experienced a resurgence, and now (according to Audubon magazine) their numbers are declining again, and no one seems to know why.


I have to admit I was incredulous while reading the article. “Turkeys aren’t rare,” I thought. “They seem to be everywhere in the Boston suburbs these days.” J and I often see turkeys roaming our neighborhood, and I regularly see them on my morning commute, occasionally having to stop to let them cross the road, just like the chicken in the old joke. On my way to Boston College on Friday morning, in fact, I saw a half dozen turkeys fly over Beacon Street, their heavy bodies barely clearing the cars in front of me. Flying turkeys always look aerodynamically improbable, as if they are able to remain aloft only by sheer luck, and the birds I’ve seen look glossy and well-fed, scavenging backyard feeders along with their natural food sources.

Suburban turkeys

The Audubon article did admit that turkeys are becoming more adaptable in terms of their habitat preferences, learning to live alongside humans in the suburbs: apparently, it is elsewhere, in their wilder haunts, that wild turkeys are declining. In suburbia, the coexistence of birds and humans can be tenuous, however, since male turkeys are large, occasionally territorial, and possessing of sharp claws and spurs. The turkeys we’ve seen here in Newton haven’t been aggressive, but nearby Brookline seems to attract particularly nasty birds, and last year, environmental police shot a tom turkey that had attacked an employee at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

Perfect pose

With this checkered history in mind, we’ll see how our Newton turkeys fare. The Cochituate aqueduct, a ribbon of woods frequented by joggers and dog-walkers, winds through our neighborhood, and both Newton Cemetery and Cold Spring Park offer fields and forests where long-legged birds can wander. Whenever we see turkeys in our neighborhood, I’m always startled and amazed: if birds this big can survive in the woodsy fringe of suburbia, what else lurks just beyond our green backyards?

This is my Day 9 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

The photo at the head of today’s post shows the two turkeys that visited our yard this morning. The other photos illustrating today’s post come from previous turkey encounters.

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