Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
Toward the end of May, a flock, or rafter, of wild turkeys moved into the woods downslope from our cottage. I’ve encountered turkeys on occasion over the years, most often as they crossed roads, in their leisurely fashion, while cars waited and honked to no avail. I once startled a trio of toms on our lawn when I walked out the front door and they startled me right back by taking to sudden and swift flight, straight to the woods. That creatures so big and ungainly could lift off with such speed and grace was surprising, a reminder that ungainliness is in the eye of the beholder, as is grace.
These encounters were all one-offs, but May promised something more than casual. It started the day I observed two enormous toms walking the border between the woods and an empty field behind our cottage. Such huge bodies atop such small bases, with wide fan-tails for rudders: they looked like they should topple over, but these two moved with slow deliberation along the entire length of the field, keeping close to the woods for cover. Their to-and-fro motion reminded me of John Wayne’s rolling gait; they looked like a pair of U.S. Marshalls patrolling the streets of Laredo, scanning fraught territory. Having made their assessment, they withdrew into the woods.
A few days later, a new sound was added to the dawn’s avian chorus: the ululating gobble of the turkeys, joining the hoot of the barred owl, the lamentations of the mourning dove, and the cheeping of the robin nesting outside our window. The tom’s gobble is, among other things, a territorial marker, a sign that his rafter has taken up residence. A flock will range over 10 or 11 square miles in its lifetime; we were likely the next tract in this larger rotation.
The gobble is also a mating call. One day in early June, my neighbor found a turkey hen roosting on the railing of the upper deck of his house. She was a lovely bird, trim and elegant compared to the toms, looking very like a quail, with a swooping Art Deco curve from head to tail. My neighbor had never seen a turkey roost on his house. His cats had never seen one either; looking out through the glass door to the deck, they went into a state of feline meltdown at the unaccustomed sight. For three days in a row the hen appeared, then moved on. Perhaps it was part of some mating ritual, a prep for the poults to come. Turkeys roost high, for protection, hence the term “a rafter of turkeys,” from their roosting in the rafters of barns, when barns are handy; when not, decks will do.
It is well known that Benjamin Franklin gave serious consideration to the turkey as the most apt candidate for America’s national bird: “The Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird than the Bald Eagle, and withal a true original Native of America … He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.”
Franklin objected to the bald eagle as a “bird of bad moral character,” for thieving and scavenging. The turkey is the less predatory and more peaceful bird. Turkeys don’t scavenge, they forage and eat mainly grasses and vegetation. Once you get accustomed to their snoods and wattles, they’re really a quite lovely bird. I don’t know if it would have made a difference in the disposition of our nation had we chosen the more pacific bird as an emblem. I can’t help thinking that we missed an opportunity and the turkey, for all its prominence in the mythos of Thanksgiving, remains, wistfully, the road not taken.
Jonathan Shimkin, writer and editor, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via his website: jonathanshimkin.weebly.com.]