By David Hawke - There may still be snow in the valleys, but a couple of wildlife species are well into springtime behaviour mode. The past two weeks have produced daily observations of turkeys and deer, turkeys and deer, and more turkeys and deer.
The white-tailed deer have been huddled together within hemlock swamps, avoiding bone-chilling winds, fur-soaking snow, and hungry coyotes. These gathering areas, called winter yards, are traditional sites that are used year after year.
Hemlock trees provide food and shelter for a herd of deer from December to April; the larger the forest stand, the more deer may be found there. Some winter yards have a dozen animals while larger yards may contain several hundred. The deer have come from miles around to spend the winter months together, following each other in an orderly manner to pack down the snow and create easily manoeuvred trails throughout the conifer swamp.
Each deer has to eat the equivalent volume of a basketball every day, their diet consisting of tips of hemlock branches and tips of young maple trees. That's a lot of nipping, day after day.
So when the snow melts enough to allow safe travel outside the swamp, the deer tentatively break out and go to open fields that have bits of green pasture showing through. They will retreat back to the yard to rest for the night, but each evening will see them cavorting around the wide open spaces.Just down the road from our place there have been almost 40 deer gamboling around a pasture field each evening.
The does walk with slow efficiency as they are well into their pregnancy, with fawns due to be dropped in a month or so. Yearlings bounce around the field like children on a March Break program, while the bucks wander about with stately caution. If the snow keeps melting they will all be dispersed in a week or so.
The other spring spectacle is the parading of the wild turkeys. During those months of deep snow, the turkeys quietly worked the rural fencelines looking for grapes, bittersweet berries and weed seeds. On quiet nights they would roost high in the bare branches of maples and oaks, thus avoiding predators. But with a thin layer of snow left in the fields, and a firm crusty layer at that, the turkeys are getting antsy to progress into springtime.
Many people who maintain bird feeders in their backyard are happy to get smattering of blue jays, woodpeckers, chickadees and maybe the occasional visit from a cardinal. Living where we do, in the heart of farming country, there is opportunity to view the annual turkey 'migration' across our yard. Absent for most of the winter, the yard now has a daily crowd of about 30 turkeys (some days the tally hits 80 plus).
The adult males, called toms, are feeling the need to attract a mate and strut around with feathers fluffed up and wings dragging, posing and displaying to the passing hens (a.k.a. jennies). The ratio of toms to jennies in our local flock is about 1:10, so you might expect that these big, handsome males would be kept quite busy. Not really. There is a melee of hens and young males (called jakes) under the feeders, while a cluster of toms stand proudly by, tails fanned and feathers gleaming in the rising sun, feet stamping, strong chortles being called out... to no avail, as the hens keep to themselves. For now, anyway.
A dozen years ago you would have had to work pretty hard to flush up a bona fide turkey of the wilderness. But a drive through the countryside these days is almost guaranteed to provide a glimpse of at least one flock, if not more. The fields are alive with the sound of gobbling!
In a very small way, I was part of the re-introduction program of bringing Wild Turkeys back to Simcoe County. Locally, the main movers-and-shakers of this turkey program were John Dobell and 'Butch' Lafrance. As MNR biologist and wildlife technician, they co-ordinated the transportation and release of our new feathered inhabitants. I just got to ride along on a couple of "pick 'em up" trips.
Once, Butch and I had to race down to Cambridge (through a snowstorm) to take delivery of three birds that had been captured earlier that morning and had been in transit since dawn. The quicker these birds are released, the less stress they endure, and the better their chance of survival at the release site. And so, as soon as they were live-trapped, they began a 24 hour (or less) relay across the province.
When we got back to this neck-of-the-woods it was almost dark. But knowing it would be better to release them at dusk rather than keep them captive for another 12 hours or so, we hauled the boxes out of the truck and up and over the low snowbank. Lids were opened, boxes were tipped on their sides and… nothing happened. A gentle tap on the bottom of the box eventually brought one outside. It blinked and then took flight, flying straight north into a dense cedar swamp. The second bird flapped out of the box, spread its wings, made a 180 degree turn, and disappeared into the southern horizon. Bird three finally figured out that an open box meant freedom, rocketed out and took aim on the setting sun, flying ever westwards until out of our sight.
Butch and I looked at each other, shrugged, and wondered how many years in might take (if ever) until these birds found themselves together again. That was almost 30 years ago, and when I drive down that section of the Mount St. Louis Road today, I am truly amazed to see flock after flock of Wild Turkeys grazing within the open farm fields. I guess those original three did find each other after all.