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Talking turkey on Christmas Bird Count day

2021 12 18 turkeys and grapesThe nice thing about wild turkeys is that they are so big you can't miss them. Seeing them that is. Whether they're swarming your bird feeder or trudging across an open corn field, turkeys get noticed. For the birdwatcher trained to constantly peer into thick piles of brush to detect small feathered life forms, tripping over a flock of turkeys feels almost ‘other-worldly’.

Such was my experience on a recently drive along the local backroads in search of photographic scenes. I was looking for architectural scenes such as old barns and red brick farmhouses, or perhaps a rusting hay-rake half-buried in snow. But the birdwatching portion of my brain was also looking for flocks of snow buntings or, if I should be so lucky as see one, a northern shrike.

Somehow, between seeking images large and small, I missed the medium sized subjects, those being turkeys. At least I missed them until I was on top of them. One flew past my windshield, quite close (good thing I was driving so slowly) and two more jumped out of the ditch almost in front of me. As the car came to a stop, a turkey trio skulked along the roadside fence and another group of them crossed the road behind me (noticed in the rearview mirror as I checked for any pickup trucks that might be bearing down upon me).

A couple of eye blinks and fairly complete head rotation revealed that I was surrounded by turkeys, almost 50 of them. What I had failed to notice a few moments earlier was that they were all feeding within the tangled shrub-lined ditch. It was with obvious reluctance that they were leaving here and being forced to move on to the next feeding area. Trudging towards the distant woodlot they strung out in single files across the corn field, their hunched profiles looking for all the world like pack-laden Klondike gold miners.

A couple of birds continued to stay in the shrubs, dining on whatever it was they found so attractive. With windows down and four-way flashers flashing, I eased the car forward until abreast of the feathered diners. The telephoto lens provided a clear view of what they were feeding on, which were the berries of wild grape.

Looking up and down the roadsides, the tangle of vegetation was noted to be vine after vine of wild grape which threaded up and through the hawthorns and choke cherries, draping itself like a garland for about a kilometre along the roadside. This has been a year that saw wild grapes producing 'a bumper crop', and the fruits hung thick in many clusters. The turkeys had noticed this and were rejoicing with their luck at finding this food bonanza, at least until I happened along.

Watching these stragglers pick 'just a couple more' before they too left, was quite fascinating. Some fruits were gleaned by simply extending the neck way up and nabbing the grape. Other times a hop, a jump and a wing flap were required to gain the proper height.

And then one finally flew up and landed on the top of the grape vines, reaching down into the woven vines to find the juicy fruit. Wobbly balancing atop the grape vines it looked as natural as an elephant walking a tightrope. Descriptive words like awkward, heavy looking and just plain 'that's not right' came to mind. Yet there this large turkey remained, tipping back and forth as it balanced itself, plucking grapes from the vine.

Eventually they all left, and I had some interesting photographs. I know turkeys are scavengers, and here they have proven that they can find food in somewhat unlikely places. Our winters are always a test of the turkey's resilience to adverse weather; since their reintroduction to this region in the 1980s they have enjoyed fairly light winters, which meant that enough food could be found to sustain several large flocks.

As the seed-laden weed stalks begin to disappear beneath the surface of the white blanket one wonders, will the turkeys all survive? Will they find enough food to consistently satisfy the daily cravings of such a large flock? Time will tell.

Now as I drive the rural roads, I try to take in more of the big picture. A picturesque barn you can't miss, nor a hungry turkey it seems. As I get to know where the grape vines grow in abundance, you'll find my car slowing down in anticipation of more sightings of these strange looking yet fascinating birds.

Dave’s Notebook: Today is one of the Christmas Bird Count days for local naturalist clubs. Orillia and Midland club members are already out prowling their assigned areas looking for feathered critters to tally. My day has started with 40 wild turkeys in the backyard!

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© 2021 David J. Hawke


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