My suburb is getting wild

A year or two ago, or so I'm told, a neighbor spotted a white-tailed deer grazing on the nearby elementary school playing field. It was a misty, early autumn morning with a light fog drifting just above the grass. The startled witness watched in wonder and disbelief until, convinced that the tawny deer was not a specter, rushed home to summon a corroborating pair of eyes. By the time they returned, however, the visitor had fled.

I heard the story with some skepticism. I often encounter deer on my walks through upcounty parks, but not once in 42 years in town, not even in the 700-acre county park. Except for Red Maple Swamp, a two-acre tangle of honeysuckle and mulberry a block from the school, there isn't anything resembling wilderness in this New York suburb, not a golf course, not a nature preserve, not even a large private estate.

Even the swamp is riven with wood-chip-cushioned paths and bordered by backyards guarded by barking dogs. In every direction, the landscape only grows more congested with concrete, cars, and closely set homes, hardly the environment for deer.

The only access from up county is a narrow bicycle corridor adjacent to the railroad and parkway. In places only a few yards wide and asphalt-covered, the path is anything but wild. It leads to the protected watershed of the county reservoir. But why would a deer abandon those woods to wander six miles south, risking encounters with trains, trucks, buses, cars, bicycles, joggers, and walkers? Out of curiosity? In search of adventure? The more I thought about it, the more preposterous a deer down the street began to seem.

Until a few days ago when, in an instant, my attitude about such sightings changed. I was sitting on the porch reading the Sunday paper when something larger than a squirrel, larger than a raccoon, larger even than the red-tailed hawks that occasionally perch in our white pines, wandered across the lawn. I watched in amazement as a wild turkey paused in the middle of the backyard.

On my walks upstate I've often encountered them, usually in flocks of four or five, their thick, ungainly bodies and red-tinged necks jerking forward and back as they probe the forest floor for acorns and beechnuts. At the first sight of hikers they melt into the underbrush.

So ubiquitous were wild turkeys in Colonial times that Benjamin Franklin facetiously proposed them as the national bird. But in time the wild turkey vanished from these precincts, along with so many other species that migrated northward ahead of suburban development.

Yet there, in seeming defiance of that 200-year-old pattern, stood a bold or hopelessly disoriented turkey facing south. Spotting me standing open-mouthed, it seemed in no particular hurry to flee, remaining there even as I summoned my wife and children, even as I retrieved my video camera and gingerly approached, eye glued to the viewfinder.

It watched me come near, then continued slowly toward the street, turned back, and began to pick up speed. It reared back a moment and spread its huge brown-and-white wings, flapping twice and growing momentarily light-footed before scuttling into the skunk cabbage and maple saplings of the swamp.

No matter how it arrived, the question remains: Why did it bother? True, local property values have never been higher; the town's much-vaunted school system and its charges are thriving; all neighborhood dogs are confined behind steel or invisible electric fences; and residents diligently recycle and divide their vote almost equally between Republican and Democratic candidates. Why shouldn't any self-respecting turkey want to take up residence here?

Whatever the reason, I felt enormous joy at this sighting. It suggested that our local ecosystem is healthier than many believe, capable of sustaining not only enormous SUVs but unaccommodated wildlife as well. The neighborhood feels richer for it.

We are custodians of so much more than simply our own comfort, entrusted with maintaining this extraordinary place we call home not just for ourselves but for all nature. The greatest testament to our successful discharge of that trust is the return of species that once populated this territory in abundance: turkey and pheasant; grouse and heron; eagle, hawk, and owl; beaver and porcupine; coyote and fox. To live alongside them is to dwell not merely in a park, but in a garden, the garden. What greater legacy can we leave our children?

In the meantime, I'm keeping an eye out for that deer.

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