Wild turkeys share the farm with us, although sightings of these cunning and secretive birds are rare. Feathers, four-toed prints, and the distant bobble of long necks over a swell of pasture are signs enough that the big birds find our place to their liking and fare well here.
Occasionally on my walks I hear a rustling, clucking departure fanning out ahead of me. Much more rarely I actually flush to flight a group of hens and young birds from tall concealing grasses or drought-constricted watering holes. When it happens, the birds startle and thrill me with a powerful winged athleticism their waddling gait belies.
The field grasses they feed on are richer than usual this time of year, oddly enough because of the drought – a second cutting of hay was out of the question and just enough rain fell in two months to maintain the slow green growth.
Nuts and juniper berries drop abundantly around a spring-fed tub and streamside pothole, neither of which has completely dried up as the creek itself has.
Our thick cedar woodland offers plenty of roosting, and a drainage area in the adjacent pasture has grown long and wild – a ribbon of cover right at the center of the sumptuous foraging. A turkey couldn't order better habitat or concealment. And we like to leave them to it, although sightings are always welcome.
The other day Charlie and I traveled up Bethel Lane past this field and saw a number of wild turkeys out in the open, heads to the ground, feeding in full view of the road. With no traffic behind us, we slowed to count the birds in the farm's flock. We spotted eight, although more may have been browsing out of sight.
As many Americans know, Benjamin Franklin would have preferred the turkey to the eagle as America's national symbol, a leaning revealed in these excerpts from a letter to his daughter:
For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District....For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
The turkeys in our "Farm Yard" are holding their own, and with hunting prohibited, they needn't prove their courage against the "red Coats" or human predators in any other color clothing.
As for vanity, just catch the iridescence glancing off a tom's feathers in the late afternoon sun and ask yourself if a little pride in appearance isn't perfectly warranted in this "true original Native of America," national symbol or not.