A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1848
December 19, 2016

TURKEYS

MONTPELIER – The other morning was one of those thank-God-I-put-the-car-in-the-barn-last-night mornings: four inches of fresh, soaking-wet snow, gusty wind, and steady, sleety rain rinsing the whole mess. It was one of those days you’re deeply grateful you’re not in the middle of a winter camping trip. Not only would you get soaked through by the rain, but the invariable sequel to a day like that is at least two days of arctic cold and north winds. It was immensely pleasurable to watch the mess from my cozy office. I turned happily to my typing.

Just then a distinct motion caught the corner of my eye. A large black turkey, head down against the spitting sleet and up to its chest in the snow, trudged unhappily from left to right across the picture framed by the office window. I got up to watch, and here came about half a dozen more, stepping right in his tracks, like a little squad on an unhappy patrol. They stopped briefly. The leader surveyed the spot where a year ago I spread rolled corn, but I hadn’t gotten to it yet. I swear he stared at my window, along with the others, and silently commented, “Ahem...” I vowed to head for the feed store before I ate another bite myself. Nobody should go hungry on a day like that one.

Almost all of us are familiar with the passage from Matthew: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.” It’s an example intended to make us less nervous about the source of our support, and it works whether you believe it’s Providential or natural; the fowls do indeed manage to make it without agriculture or barns. But the birds’ efforts have a lot to do with it, too. I suspect the gospelers didn’t know as much natural history as we have access to today. If they had, they’d have known that many birds – northern ones, mostly – stash extra food here and there against hard times; and would have known as well that sometimes they don’t make it, after all: On one of our Arctic canoe trips we came across uncountable numbers of dead Lapland longspurs on the tundra, done in (as we nearly were, too) by an unseasonably cold July.

The scientist who named the wild turkey species must have been a passive-aggressive nerd, a taxonomic showoff. Instead of a simple name like Gulo gulo (wolverine) or Turdus migratorius (robin, with a little humor thrown in), he named the wild turkey Meleagris gallopavo, which means simply that it’s a member of the turkey family and shaped rather like a chicken. It was native to North America and thrived here for thousands of years before Europeans brought firearms and agricultural land-clearing with them to the New World. It’s long been reputed, in grade school American history classes, to have been the entrée at the first thanksgiving celebration of the Pilgrims. It’s much more likely, though, that mor easily hunted venison was the main course.

The turkey got its vulgar name in English, by the way, from the domestic species imported by the British from Turkey, where it was raised.

The scene out my back window would have been impossible 30 or 40 years ago., Habitat destruction and unregulated hunting had all but extirpated the wild turkey from New England by the early 1900s. Most of us, I daresay, considered it gone for good because we fancied it couldn’t possibly survive the New England winters.

We were wrong. By dint of frequent trapping, transporting, and releasing wild flocks in turkeyless areas, their numbers have increased from an estimated 57,000 nationwide in the early 1900s to millions today. One of these days before long, they won’t even occasion a Facebook post when they appear, and the auto glass replacement specialists will have dozens of stories about windshields caved in by collisions with flying turkeys on the interstates.

Turkey hunting, because of the bird’s keen senses and legendary wariness, is considered the ultimate test of a hunter’s skill. The most likely time for success is during the mating season, when both sexes’ wits are somewhat addled. Hunters dress in the most elaborate camouflage garb available; a military sniper isn’t concealed any better. One of my favorite turkey stories is of a North Carolina (I think) hunter so well disguised and so good at the call of the lovesick female that he was pounced upon and badly mauled by a bobcat.

Peter Gilbert, Director of Vermont Humanities, has an even better story, which he told a year or so ago on Vermont Public Radio. Early in the 19th century, before the advent of railroads, domestic turkeys made up an important cash crop in Vermont. The best market for the birds was, of course, Boston, but there was no way to get them there in any numbers that would justify the effort. So Vermonters drove flocks of turkeys like cattle, along the roads to the big city. Flocks of from three to four thousand birds were common; 1000 was the minimum considered viable.

Boys scattered corn ahead of the marching flocks; others drove them from behind. Some drovers dipped the birds’ feet in tar to help protect them from the wear and tear of the road. The birds drove along fairly well; a ten percent loss to the usual misfortunes and predators was normal. They had, however, a habit that nothing could extinguish: Turkeys are night-roosting birds, and as soon as the sun dropped and the sky darkened each day, they all flew to the nearest perch for the night. Their weight broke trees and sometimes even barn roofs.

Today’s commercially grown turkeys are scarcely at all like those hardy characters that hiked to Boston and trudged past my window. I do hope these’ll come back and spend the winter.

Photo by Willem lange