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2020 Turkey Chronicles - Part I

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

2020 will forever be known globally as the Year of the Coronavirus Pandemic. COVID-19 has transformed all our lives and continues to do so. From those who have died to those continuing to die by the hundreds of thousands, to their loved ones who remain, to those who got sick but survived, to those who remained healthy, but had their lives altered in previously unimaginable ways, this was a year like no other.

In the U.S., though, it will also be known as the year of Black Lives Matters and a year of great political turmoil. Hopefully, the unnecessary deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain at the hands of police, along with so many others, will serve as a wake up call for us to do much, much better.

And in the Santa Cruz Mountains, particularly Bonny Doon where I live, it will be remembered as the Year of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. This blaze burned over 86,000 acres and totally destroyed more than 900 homes. The CZU fire, one of 27 caused by a single, rare dry lightning storm, was stopped a mile from my land, sparing my house and my immediate neighborhood.

I was evacuated for 2 ½ weeks and had the great good fortune of having a bedroom and bath to myself in the gorgeous home of generous, wonderful friends Ted and Renee, just a few blocks from the bay. This made evacuation almost like a most marvelous vacation, except for the endless worry, the dense cloying smoke hanging over our city, the rain of parched and blackened leaves flown from miles away, and my daily visits to the blockade to see if I could get back in to my house to retrieve more valued items, and check up on things.

Fire Messengers

I succeeded, through creativity, for the first four days to talk my way in, then accepted the reality that law enforcement had closed access up the mountain for the duration. This forced rebel fire fighters (CalFire essentially abandoned us) to take dangerous alternate routes bypassing the blockades, in order to resupply those who remained on the mountain, successfully holding the fire at bay while protecting numerous homes.

Since I have spent much of the year sheltered-in-place at home, minus the company of friends and my much-loved son, with only a few whale-viewing trips for diversion, I will always remember 2020 as the Year of the Turkey.

My new-found turkey family did their best to substitute for the human family and friends I stayed in touch with, due to COVID restrictions, via text, email, phone and Zoom, but who I saw in person infrequently. The turkeys began to show up in the spring. First Tom Turkey, named Tom cause that’s what all male turkeys are called, right? Then Tom began to be accompanied by his side-kick Tim (short for timid, as Tim was and continues to remain more aloof than Tom), then the hens began to pass through, and within two months of Tom’s arrival, the first little poults made their appearance. Now, in December as I write these chronicles, the turkeys still stop by, though more irregularly than earlier in the year.


3-23 Let me introduce you to Tom Turkey

Tom showed up at my house in late March. Was he one of the poults who had spent time here last year or the year before with their siblings and mother? I will never know, but the odds seem good. While I can differentiate Tom from the two other males he now travels with (I call the third Clippity-clop), turkeys are not easy to tell apart, at least, not for me.

Tom made it easy by his behavior, as he showed a familiarity with people and a friendliness I could not deny. Tom would walk right up onto my deck, stare into my living room window at me, and then eat pumpkin seeds or dried corn kernels directly out of my hand.

In addition, he only has a spur on his right leg. And his snood knot is smaller than Tim's. It’s the little things that count.

The delicacy of color in his feathers seems to me to be a form of magic. Such an ungainly bird decked out in so much beauty.

When the sunlight falls in just the right way, the plumage of a male displays the most exquisite iridescent colors of red, bronze, gold, green and blue, set off by black and brown trim.

3-24 Tom and Tim

Turkeys are very curious looking birds. They seem to be assembled from a far-flung collection of creature parts. They have the color-changing ability of an octopus, feathers (8 different shapes) that look like a collection from a dozen different birds, caruncles that mimic the warts of toads, though far more colorful than most of theirs, a beard like a billy goat, a dewlap like a lizard’s, the weight of a bobcat, wattles like a, well like a turkey, spurs like a fighting cock, and a snood that sprouts hairs on its tip like an elephant’s tail, but changes in size and temperament akin to an elephant’s trunk. Yet, overall they resemble a sort of remnant dinosaur. In fact, they are closely related. A turkey is a saurischian dinosaur, like Apatosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, and Velociraptor.[1] Who knew? [1]

Velociraptor, the fearsome dinosaur made famous in the Jurassic Park films, had feathers and probably more closely resembled a big turkey than the killer screen dinosaur, scientists have discovered.[1]

I am also able to tell Tim apart from Tom based on both his more timid behavior and his longer, more lively snood.

3-28 Tom Turkey in fine form

Tom is dressed up for the ladies. His caruncles and wattles are in full bloom, brilliant vermillion. He has a hint of blue in his cheeks. While turkeys were passed over for national bird, whose honors went to the Bald Eagle, the Toms proudly wear our nation’s colors on their heads – red, white and blue.

So many hairs on the head and snood. Hairs are usually thought of as sensory tools. I wonder their function in turkeys.

These boys are quite beautiful! Well, their feathers are anyway. Turkeys, which look like relics of the long lost past, are in fact, descendants of the dinosaurs. I wonder if the pterodactyls had such magical feathers, changing color with the play of sunlight.

4-3 Turkey Tom again

Tom is resting in front of my house. His snood is also at rest, looking more like an elephant’s tail than trunk, hanging off the front end of the animal. It’s breeding season, so Tom is sporting his patriotic breeding colors of red, white and blue.

4-21 Boys will be boys

Yes, boys will be boys. But what this behavior signifies, I cannot say for sure. I expect most of my bird friends will say this is a dominance display. Certainly likely, though I know I’ve seen males of some species practice their flirtations on other males. This doesn’t quite look like that. But Tim is putting some kind of moves on Tom, who is doing his best to avoid confrontation. Tom looks away, leans away or even heads away. Smart moves on his part. Except for approaching me and eating out of my hand, Tom always defers to Tim. Is Tim older? I do not know. Perhaps he’s just tougher. Maybe they’ve duked it out along the way. So much I do not know!

4-30 Splendid Turkey Tom

Tom and Tim have been coming every morning for the seed I toss out on the ground. Some days they hang around after feeding, just resting. Other days they groom, Tim on my deck railing. Some days they head out to feed in the meadow on greens or insects. So I thought I’d share a handsome portrait of Tom amidst the blue lupine and yellow cream cups, his breast feathers burnished by the sun.

5-3 Turkeys feeding in the meadow

Today the turkeys were out in full force, feeding in my meadow where the lupine, for which our lane was named, was in spectacular bloom. What a sight! Shiny black bodies sporting brilliant red wattles, punctuating the sea of blue amid the green grasses. I’m not sure if this is Tom and Tim or another pair of the large group of toms who show up from time to time to feed in my meadow. None-the-less, they are quite handsome.

5-11 Here's Tim

And since Tom has gotten his portrait shared a lot, here’s one of Tim in the larger meadow where the lupine is thick and colorful. The wild oats are coming along and will feed the turkey flock through most of the summer. Oh, and here he is looking pretty for the ladies! But wait!! His wattles are all white!! I wonder what the significance of that might be. These guys don’t change color like octopus to blend into their environment, but they signal all sorts of information through their posture, the fluff and spread of their feathers, the size and position of their snood, and, of course, the color of their wattles and their facial coloration. I think some of that is governed by hormones, but apparently not all. Don't forget to notice his tall snood 'bun'. It's his hallmark, and how I can identify him.

And here's Tom with white wattles, too. What's up with that? I wish I knew.

5-14 Tom on display

Tom is displaying to the ladies in classic, well-honed male turkey display posture. Tail up and fanned out, wing feathers dropped for strutting, back feathers lifted up, neck and head tucked. Feather iridescence is nicely on display as are his colorful wattles and blue face ‘paint’.

European explorers took wild turkeys to Europe from Mexico in the early 1500s. They were domesticated there and were later brought back to North America by English colonists. These domesticated turkeys have white-tipped tails while wild turkeys have dark-tipped tails.

5-17 The poults have arrived!

Look! They have arrived! The little ones are so very cute! To think that in just a few months they will have grown into gangly youngsters, learning how to become full-fledged adult turkeys! So small, it’s a wonder they manage to navigate the tall grasses in the fields, the brambles in the woods, the downed logs and all the other possible obstacles. At this stage they still sleep at night with mom on the ground.

5-19 Turkey Tim

Tim decided to display this morning. I’m guessing the hens must have been around, though I didn’t take any photos of them. But look at that snood! I guess you might have to be a turkey to appreciate it in all its glory, but it is pretty impressive, none-the-less.

5-22 Turkey poult appreciation day

On a sunshiny morning, a poult rests in the dandelions beside my house. Mom, Penny, checks in. Notice how the little ones have dappled feathers on the top of their heads. Provides nice camouflage, as they are likely tasty morsels to the many predators that abound.

5-27 Tim is decked out, and the hens doing what hens do

Tim is all decked out in his finest. Well, he’s always wearing the same garb, but now he’s put it all on display for the ladies. I can tell it’s Tim because he’s missing some large tail feathers. But look at his come hither snood. Not quite sure the benefit of a display while the hens are caring for this season’s babies, as they do not hatch more than one clutch per year. Trust me, it’s a lot of work finding food, showing the little ones what’s worth eating, how to groom, take dust baths, fly into the trees at night, and all the other important business of being a turkey. Maybe Tim’s display is a way of letting the moms know he’s there to help protect them.

But see, even the hens sometimes spread their tale feathers. Not the same as the males, nor with the same intent, but not sure just why they do it.

Here is one of the hens feeding on wild oats.

5-28 Tim had a hard night, but Henny is hard at work

Tim must have had a hard night. This morning he took a nap on the driveway in front of my house. Glad to see he is comfortable enough to fall asleep. Turkeys roost in trees for the night, out of the reach of predators. Now look at that snood!! Ordinarily, it is kept on top of his head like a bun. Tim’s is on the large size making it easy to tell him apart from his buddies. Such a mobile body part, though! It’s a bit reminiscent of a slinky, which stacks compactly, but extends to many times its original size. Clearly Tim’s snood is as relaxed as he is. But toms also let their snoods drop when they are wooing the ladies. I suppose it’s considered sexy, or at least attractive.

I think this may be Henny crossing the driveway to head out to my main meadow. (The hens are much harder to tell apart than the toms.) Three of her ten poults are sticking close. The others will catch up. She’s keeping a pretty close eye on me to make sure I don’t make any false moves. She’s a good mom. Not too skittish, but definitely cautious and attentive.

5-29 Heading into summer

It’s late spring and everything is green. Well, except the yellow flowers. This is actually a path mowed through the grass that goes from the driveway in front of my house to the small meadow out by my horse barn. One of the hens in a reflective moment as she wanders out to do some grazing.

5-31 Henrietta

This is Henrietta eyeing me warily from the meadow. I’m trying to camouflage myself as a large rosebush inside my garden fence. Clearly not as successful as I’d like to be, but she hasn’t run off, so I guess I’m not that much of a threat. One of her little ones is concerned though and has flown up above the grass. Is that to get a better look at me, or preparation to take flight? Henrietta is not part of a coalition, so must look out for her poults on her own. On top of that, Henny and Penny sometimes give her a hard time. Not surprisingly, she has a smaller brood. Likely, that she has lost more babies than the other two hens who work together to find food and keep on the lookout for danger.

1 commentaire

01 janv. 2021

This is wonderful! We had a group of turkeys visit us regularly several years ago and this helps me understand a lot more behavior and biology!

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