The (mostly) flightless fowl's big day may be over, but it's still ruling the roost in some places
Donna Hewett - 12/03/2020
It’s not your typical day on the front nine. A mother hen and her four growing jakes (young tom turkeys) have pretty much taken over this side of the golf course at the San Juan Country Club in Farmington.
Vacuous months of being closed under the pandemic brought all sorts of wild animals out of the woods, including bats and a red fox, along with the usual ravens, Canadian geese and a literal ton of skunks. But wild turkeys are a different can of beans. They’re notorious for finding strut zones on well-groomed golf courses across the country.
But here, not every birdie is welcome on the fairway. Do they get scared and fly off when approached with a golf cart? No, not at all. In the face of a five wood being angrily pounded in front of them, they hold their ground and never flinch. These birds can run up to 25 miles per hour and can easily keep up with a group of golfers for an entire round if they like. But why? Apparently, they think they’re in charge of the course now. The virus has shifted the balance of power out here, which, considering the management, might not be such a terrible thing.
“Excuse me, but can you not walk your dogs in this area? I’m afraid they’ll scare our family of turkeys away. Thank you.”
The human hens who live at the estates have nothing better on their schedule then to indulge these wild birds. What they maybe don’t realize is that an angry Butterball will, and can, attack a human. They’ll charge and jab and do serious damage with the sharp spars on their legs under stressful circumstances. Since last spring, these ladies, quarantined in their kitchens, have waited days, long hours, to offer these newest residents what I imagine to be bottled water and maybe thimbles of a good, oaky chardonnay, paired with buttery, roasted acorns served on the half-shell.
Seriously though, one neighbor breathlessly shows me 10 dozen phone shots of the turkeys vainly roosting on hot tubs, truck hoods and holiday-tressed balconies, and while pecking the shite out of the perfectly groomed No. 2 green. But it’s hard to shoot a moving object, and sadly, most appear just a tad out of focus.
Meleagris gallopovom is not just a bigger chicken. It’s a species that has plenty of juicy secrets beyond their pairing with cranberry sauce and stuffing. Being a true, original native of America, they can prove it: When agitated, their head blushes from pale pink to a patriotic red, white and blue.
We don’t often spot turkeys soaring through the skies because they prefer to keep on the ground to feed (on nuts, seeds, roots, insects and occasionally small reptiles). They can, however, fly up to 55 mph in short bursts and up to a mile at more moderate speeds. It’s the commercially bred turkeys, breast heavy, weighed down by their own meat, who unhappily cannot get it up.
Despite their girth (a gobbler can reach near 40 pounds) wild turkeys prefer to sleep atop tree branches where they’re safe from coyotes and certain venomous snakes. With strong social bonds, they snooze in flocks, waking with a soft series of yelps before descending to make sure their roosting group is OK after a good night’s sleep.
The turkey is notoriously hard to track due to its periscopic eyesight. Eyes on the side of its head allow it to see objects not in its direct line of vision. By rotating its head, the turkey has 370-degree field vision – in color. That’s three times better than 20-20.
Its ability to detect certain sounds surpasses little dogs, bats, owls and elephants. A turkey can hear far-off and at low frequency, allowing it to detect a threat, even while it’s busy looking for food.
A turkey’s gender can be determined from its droppings. Males produce an artful spiral-shaped calling card, while the females’ resemble the delicate letter “J.”
Turkeys haven’t any teeth to chew with, so mother nature provided them with two stomachs. The first, which is one part of the turkey the kids won’t be fighting over, is the gizzard. It contains tiny stones the turkey has previously swallowed which aid in the break down of food. From there, the mulch moves into the intestine, or back into the glandular stomach for a more thorough digestion.
Since we’re already inside the cavity, we may as well talk about the wishbone. Better known as the furcula, or clavicle, it’s a connecting point for muscles, a brace for the wings and key for them being able to fly. It acts as a spring, to store and release energy, but it’s also a reminder that birds evolved from a group of meat-eating dinosaurs that included T. Rex more than 150 million years ago.
Why do we wish upon their clavicle? According to my unsurpassable friend Google, it was the ancient Italian Etruscans who first removed a chicken’s wishbone, dried it in the sun, then caressed and made wishes upon it. The Romans adopted their custom, but it got to the point where the number of chicken wishbones was not enough to meet the demand of so many Romans’ wishes, so they began breaking the bone in two.
The tradition of wishing over the bone passed to the English. In the Middle Ages, people would take the clavicle of a goose, dry it out in the sun and then use it to predict the weather. Later on, it was named “merrythought,” because its V shape resembles a human groin, the repository of life, and more directly the bone to a woman’s pudendum (look it up). The term merrythought was first recorded in 1686 and continued to be used among settlers at Plymouth Rock, where thousands of wild toms ran amok.
Wishbone, the noun, is an Americanism, first utilized around the start of the 19th century. Pulling it apart became a sort of competition between two people. Whoever pulled the larger part was said to have a “lucky break;” the person with the smaller end, a “bad break.” In my family, after lots of coaching from my father (“hold it low and let her do most the pulling”) my brattish little brother was usually the former, and me, the long-suffering, foot-stomping latter.
The Audubon partisan inside me finally exhibits itself, and like the aforementioned hens, I too want the consummate photo of our first turkey family before (if) they flap forth or are driven off to better stomping grounds.
It’s late November, and no one has seen them of late, and I’m hoping they made it past Thanksgiving. Instead of chewing my finger and wiling away days in hopes of seeing them one last time, I have an idea. I stand in line outside the local Sportsman Warehouse, where soon a weary employee brings me my desire: a $10 turkey call. One way to entice a gobbler out, strangely, is to sound like a crow in distress.
Super high-pitched and loud, you place the small end of the plastic call between your teeth, then CAW out in a strict number of series and pauses. After some practice, my family members (three dogs, one tuxedo cat, and a crossword-addicted husband) boot me out of the house, and to my venture.
Behind a large woody area along the No. 3 fairway, I CAW softly at first and then more aggressively, in quick succession. And behold almighty, here them darling poult come a-trotting!
Our lady governor officially closed all the courses across the state again due to the uptick in corona. But here, at present, with Christmas approaching, our golf course staff, their wallets perhaps flat, may have been enticed to open the cart barn anyway. So along with the five turkeys, come two illegal golfers. The birds pursue them up the cart path and gobble annoyingly at the top of their swings. Around the green’s skirt, the young toms, with their 5,000 feathers now incandescent, appear ginormous. They flutter up rampageously close to the golfers, as if they’re displaying the kind of humor that is thought of as being very dry (get it?)
“How am I supposed to chip with this going on, Dad?” skreighs the younger golfer. “Now we can’t even go golfing without turkeys screwing up our day!”
The boy, crying, propels his wedge and it sticks like a new edge tool into the soft earth. Little does he know, but his crappy Saturday is about to get a whole bunch worse. Up the road and coming around fast, I spot a state police cruiser heading our way. The cherry lights. A siren gives its whoop. The golfers stick their hands up in the air, while the turkeys and I (with not one unforgettable phone shot) run free – them dispersing to the No. 4 hole, and me back to our house darkening in the dusk on No. 6 (a par three).
Sure as shooting, 2020 is a wild time to be alive. But rest assured, dear reader, with our wishbones and lucky masks in place, this year we’ll surely be safe at home for Christmas.