One of the things I’ve always loved about driving across the Illinois countryside is seeing large flocks of wild turkeys in spring and fall. When I was a girl, turkeys were the stuff of legends. We read about them at school associated with the pilgrim’s thanksgiving stories, and the turkey was special meat served just once or twice a year at Thanksgiving or Christmas time. I never saw wild flocks of them when we drove through rural areas to my grandparent’s homes. Turkey populations were possibly threatened or in decline at that time, as were the bald eagle and whitetail deer. But since then, conservation efforts have helped them to make a comeback.
People’s views on eating turkey have also changed. It is now favored as a low-fat, heart-healthy eating option. People eat turkey meat all year long, but roasting an entire large turkey is still a holiday tradition.
Seeing flocks of turkeys grazing in fields always transports my mind to another time. I try to imagine living long ago as a pioneer. What must it have been like when the head male in the family proudly dragged home the large bird, tossing it at his wife to dress for supper? I know from having turkey-hunting friends that there is more to hunting a turkey than pointing and shooting. Turkey hunters rise early and are in the woods by sunrise, hidden by their camouflaged gear, near turkey roosts in trees that the hunters staked out and observed months in advance.
Turkey hunting is only permitted at short and very specific times of the year. Hence, hunters have limited opportunities to take them. And the weather is often a challenging factor on these hunts. While some hunters may take a turkey in optimal conditions, fickle November and February are often rainy, snowy, windy, or sleeting, affecting their abilities and success. Nevertheless, determined hunters pursue the great birds by hiding silently, waiting, and enduring whatever conditions until the turkeys descend from the trees to begin their day. One friend told me of waiting for turkeys to wake and having one fly out of a tree at high speed, knocking him over. He said it was like having a 40-pound bowling ball hurled at you.
Spring-time turkey hunting is possibly trickier as male turkeys gather up their harems for mating season and can be pretty protective. Their large bodies can be quite formidable, and their spurs can do some damage if they are feeling overly defensive. A male turkey won’t hesitate to chase a perceived threat.
About a decade ago, I learned first-hand about turkey aggression. My husband and I enjoyed a small flock of fifteen wild turkeys that started passing through our little farm. Sometimes they came very near the house, inspecting our flower beds and fire pit area. I could stand just a few feet away watching them from the kitchen window, amazed at their size and lack of fear in a human habitation area. While the flock eventually moved on and stopped coming around, three of the young turkeys – a male and two females, decided to remain in the woods near our home. They frequently hung out with our neighbor’s free-ranging chickens across the road. We all found this amusing and the neighbor, a hunter, was quite happy to welcome them to the chicken yard.
What was most amusing is that our neighbor had a few dogs that ruled the neighborhood, and the dogs accepted the turkeys and vice versa. Soon when the dogs chased cars down the road, these turkeys learned the trick, and they too could be seen chasing vehicles coming down the road. “Those turkeys think they are dogs!” I said to my husband. But those turkeys weren’t chasing cars for fun. Instead, they grew up on our road and regarded the area as their territory.
When mating season rolled around about a year later, the male turkey became possessive and protective of his tiny harem. He was determined to see that no one came within 200 feet of them. I couldn’t go out to retrieve letters from the mailbox without him barreling down on me, chasing me back into the house. I was alarmed by how fast a speeding turkey can move. I got so nervous about getting the mail that I would watch out the window for a while, making sure the coast was clear before venturing outside. Ultimately, when turkeys lurked, I drove my car to the mailbox, grabbing the mail from my window.
The little gang of turkey toughs then decided to claim our yard as part of their territory. They would wander over to graze around our patio area in the early morning, then jump up on the roof over the kitchen. They would walk around the roof from one side of the house to the other. If you exited out the back door, they could hear you open the back door and would run across the roof, then come fluttering down after you if you tried to step out of the house. We literally had to run to our cars for safety. The situation was rapidly becoming unbearable. I had never imagined being challenged going in and out of my home at will by a threatening wild animal.
One day, I got home from work, and my husband had not yet arrived home. When I pulled into the driveway, I had a lot on my mind and forgot about the turkey situation. I parked the car, grabbed my purse, and was about to open the door, when suddenly, out of nowhere, there staring back at me was the threatening male turkey. “You go home!” I shouted at him, but he just kept standing there staring. I could not open the door without it touching him, and he could easily have pinned me into the car. So I just sat there. I honked the horn a few times, trying to scare him, to no avail. I then thought, surely these creatures with brains the size of a pea have short attention spans and would wander off, bored in a few minutes. So, I laid back my car seat to be out of his sight, and I decided to be real still, so he would think I’d gone away and he’d go home. I laid there for 20 minutes! And when I sat back up, there was his face, looking at me through the window! He was a turkey not to be reckoned with.
‘This is nuts! Be a woman. Use your superior brain and shoo him off!’ I said to myself. I looked around me for something – my MacGyver moment. In the back of my SUV, I had a sheet of foam core that I’d purchased for a project. I would use it as a shield. I took a deep breath and slowly opened my door, sliding the foam core between myself and the turkey. As I got out, I pressed the foam core up against him so that all he could see was the mass of white, and I kept pushing him away. I had to turn a bit, then walked backward toward the house, holding the foam core up to block him. He was puzzled but kept advancing, like a bull determined to gore a matador with a red cape. I yelled and cussed at him, but he was undeterred. At last, I made it to the door and managed to slip into the house with a racing heart.
This aggressive turkey nonsense could not go on much longer. So, I started googling how to hunt a turkey and where and how to get a hunting license. I even went so far as to read about how to pluck and dress a turkey. Fall turkey hunting season would soon arrive, and Thanksgiving was not far away. I began to form a plan. Then I came home from work one day, ready to do battle, and there simply were no more turkeys. I never knew for sure what happened, but I strongly suspect that while I was at work, my neighbor, who had welcomed them into the chicken yard, took matters into his own hands. He was perhaps home, happily preparing them for his Thanksgiving dinner.
You would think I might dislike turkeys after these experiences, but I don’t. I still thrill at seeing them. Now, I’m just a little bit wiser and more respectful of their intelligence, habits, and stealth abilities. Benjamin Franklin suggested a turkey would be the perfect national symbol of strength. He likely had seen them in action to come up with this notion. Frankly, Mr. Franklin, I know where you were coming from. But in the end, I’m happy we instead bestowed that honor on the Bald Eagle. And I am quite pleased to eat turkey on Thanksgiving and throughout the year!
This week’s Recommended Read for little ones is Turkey Trouble written by Wendi Silvano and illustrated by Lee Harper. And for some holiday fun, under the Activities section of the blog, you will find a Find the Lurking Turkeys challenge and A Thanksgiving Turkey Coloring Sheet.