Puffed and strutting

Yesterday morning as I left for campus, there was a throng of tom turkeys strutting and puffing in the street at the end of our driveway. When I was a bird-obsessed kid growing up in central Ohio, wild turkeys were wild and rare: something to be seen in the deep and distant woods, if at all. You could see deer in the suburban outskirts of the city–nearly any grassy field would attract them at twilight–but turkeys were creatures of deep wilderness, as secretive as bears.

Turkey trot

I still haven’t gotten used to the ubiquity of wild turkeys in the Boston suburbs. They are almost as prevalent as rabbits and infinitely easier to see than raccoons or opossums. Turkeys are widespread here–in winter, we frequently see small flocks strolling down streets and sidewalks; in summer, we see hens singly or in pairs leading straggling lines of poults through our backyard; and in October, we see roving gangs of tom turkeys fluffing their plumage and fanning their tails, practicing on one another the displays intended to impress females.

Quartet

These birds aren’t shy; they don’t need to be. Suburban turkeys are large and savvy: they know dogs are leashed or contained behind fences, and coyotes are elusive and largely nocturnal. This leaves turkeys to rule the backyards of Newton, Brookline, and Cambridge: yardbirds with a stately strut and little need to lurk or skulk. Until Thanksgiving at least, the not-so-wild turkeys of suburban Boston have no need for secrecy.

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.

Eclectic

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.

Braids

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.

Closeup

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.

Strutting

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.

Quartet

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.

Fleeing

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.

Baby bunny bookends

We’ve had a population explosion of backyard cottontails this year, with there almost always being one or two adult rabbits and at least one medium-sized baby bunny in our yard at any given moment.

Baby bunny

Initially, we thought we were seeing the same baby bunny over and over until we saw four equally-sized young rabbits quietly eating grass in separate spots at the same time: cottontails multiplied. Now that those baby cottontails have grown into medium-sized adolescents, yesterday I saw a slightly smaller rabbit hopping in and out of our backyard irises: a member of the next batch of baby bunnies.

To prove how hungry a baby boom of cottontail rabbits can be, compare how lush and green the hostas in our relatively rabbit-free front yard are…

Hosta leaves and bud

…with how stubby and rabbit-nibbled the hostas are in our backyard, with its bounty of hungry bunnies.

Rabbits like hosta

Last week, our backyard played host to another sort of baby, with two wild turkey hens ushering their broods of turkey chicks, or “poults,” across our yard, down our driveway, and across the street into the woods behind our neighbor’s house.

Looking to play some basketball?

Between the two hens with their combined broods, there were at least seven poults poking around our yard. Luckily, our backyard bunnies left enough ground cover in our front yard to provide handy hiding places for camera-shy turkey chicks.

Turkey poult

Click here for more (blurry) photos from last week’s wild turkey trot. Enjoy!

Nestled turkey

If you’re a wild turkey looking for a quiet place to lie low for the holidays, you could do far worse than choosing to nestle beside a grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery, far from hungry hunters or cooks with roasting pans. Cemeteries provide a tranquil respite from even the most hectic holiday hubbub, and Mount Auburn has a long history of harboring creatures who simply want to lie in a safe spot.

Mourning his master