Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cold Turkey

Eastern Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris)
soak up the sun on a bitter cold January afternoon
(click on the photo for a close up view)

They may be tough, but these turkeys could use a break during what has become an especially hard winter. We've had six storms with record snowfalls since the year began and in this part of Massachusetts the snow banks are waist high. Tonight, temperatures are falling well below zero, and arctic winds that have been howling since sunset will make it feel even colder.

However, I'm betting that this flock, 17 strong, will survive. Five mature Toms, six Hens and six young birds, born last spring, seem like a good combination. The Toms and Hens are experienced and know how to find food even in deep snow. I've observed them pecking for insects inside patches of treebark, eating hemlock pinecone seeds, which are still abundant, and they're experts at finding rose hips and other fruits that still linger on many trees and shrubs.

These turkeys will eat some birdseed but seem to regard it as just a supplement. Still, this winter every bit helps, like fresh, clean water in the heated birdbath and stands of tall trees to roost in at night. It's impressive to watch the flock fly up to their roosts. Just as the sun lowers in the sky they become restless and begin flapping their wings and scuttling up and down the road. Then, one by one, they fly skyward on some cue, perceptible to them alone. The young birds perform a kind of runway ritual in order to get the altitude required to fly to the highest tree branches. The Toms do a quick hop dance, but the Hens are the most graceful and usually the first to fly. The last bird up is a Tom; he waits until everyone gets safely to bed before going up himself.

Red foxes are out and about these nights. They returned two weeks ago to establish their dens and rendezvous with their mates. During a morning snowstorm last week, a red fox slept on a mound of snow just beyond a hemlock grove where the flock of turkeys had taken cover and were preening. His red coat stood out garishly against the white ground, and his massive tail looked like a warm muff curled around his head. The turkeys were not nervous as long as he was within sight.

Some people talk about "the dead of winter," but when you observe wildlife you understand how wrong that notion is. In my corner of the world winter is very much alive. Wild turkeys strut and call as the day warms up and red foxes are claiming their dens to mate. A new life cycle is already beginning and Spring will arrive in only six more weeks.

Looking up into the trees at night and seeing the dark shapes of sleeping turkeys against a starlit sky is enormously comforting and brings me a great deal of joy. Even the coldest night skies can be magical and beautiful. During last week's Full Wolf Moon, I could have sworn that the stars actually glittered as I watched the sky turn a silvery blue.

When I come and go on these winter nights, I find myself wondering what wild turkeys think about in their treetop roosts beneath the stars. And even after I enter my warm, bright home, I wish somehow I could be a part of their world as much as they have become a part of mine.

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