Don’t mess with Big Tom …
When in the turkeys’ presence, I feel dull and insensitive by comparison. Frequently I experience genuine embarrassment as I have occasion to let my ignorance and stupidity known to them in some way. Sometimes, I get collective looks that I can only interpret as incredulity.”
– wildlife biologist Joe Hutto in
“Illumination in the Flatwoods”
His calling card is unmistakable: an 11-inch tail feather vividly barred in black and chocolate brown with a cream-colored tip.
I never get over my amazement at looking out the kitchen window to see a 15-pound tom turkey placidly eating millet next to peeps that barely outweigh an Eisenhower dollar. Someday I’ll make a video of the scene titled “Godzilla Meets the Goldfinches.”
Many people are unaware that turkeys aren’t native to California. They were introduced from the East Coast as game birds and have multiplied exponentially in the lower foothills. The turkey came within one congressional vote of becoming our national bird, despite Ben Franklin’s arguments against the bald eagle as a low-life scavenger.
At 3,200 feet, Dan and I are a little high for the species. But the bird we now call “Big Tom” squired a lady friend around our yard last spring, and a neighbor later saw a hen with four homely chicks. Skiing above the house recently, we followed the tracks of three turkeys then spooked four roosting high in a pine. At his Penn Valley workshop last spring, Dan was regularly visited by three moms with a combined brood of 22.
Any hunter will tell you that wild turkeys are strong fliers for short distances, exceedingly wary and difficult to catch. The click of a camera shutter through an upstairs window causes Big Tom to jerk his head up. His overbred domestic cousins are the avian equivalent of Hollywood starlets: all breast and no brains. Domestic turkeys are legendarily stupid, but I can’t imagine Tom’s progeny looking up at rain and drowning, as feed lot turkeys supposedly do.
Turkeys have a highly developed social system and forage cooperatively to better elude predators. When Tom showed up alone recently, we worried that his missus had been killed. But we learned that after they mate, toms become solitary.
Big Tom has magnificent secondary sexual characteristics: a bald pink wattle hanging alongside his beak, red neck protuberances called caruncles and a “beard” of silky feathers on his chest. They look grotesque to us but drive Thomasinas wild with desire.
I’ve only seen a tom once in the fully spread tail display like schoolkids draw at Thanksgiving. Under a Duggans Road feeder, he shook his feathers and turned to and fro to catch the best sun angle on his colors to convince three hens to mate. They glanced at him, sniffed, rolled their eyes at each other, then resumed scratching for seed.
When Hernando Cortez arrived in 1519, Mexicans had only two domesticated animals, dogs and turkeys, both bred for food. In the jungle at the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, I saw the only other wild species, the iridescent blue, peacock-like oscellated turkey.
The real Spanish word for turkey is “pavo,” but I like the dialectical “guajolote” (wha-ho-LOH-tay). It’s clearly onomatopoetic; we hear “gobble, gobble,” but Mexicans hear “guajolote, guajolote.” A male turkey’s mating call can be heard up to a mile away, but the only thing I’ve ever heard Big Tom say is a sharp “TOCK!” or melodic mutterings to himself as he parades up the driveway.
Big Tom tolerates no malarkey from any of us, human or feline. Four of our cats give him wide berth, but not Tasmania, who’s as young as he is dumb. Taz, the mighty scourge of the ground-foraging juncos, stares in rapt fascination at Tom or skulks along 10 feet behind him as the gobbler drifts around the yard. I regret that I probably won’t be so lucky to see Taz forget himself and rush Tom – and get his skinny, furry butt whomped once and for all.
Like many nonmigratory birds, Tom is highly omnivorous. This time of year, he eats acorns, seeds and berries; come spring, he’ll catch insects, snails and even reptiles and amphibians. We hope that our feeders are now giving him the nutritional boost he needs to give his mate maybe 12 chicks, instead of eight.
Washing dishes, my eye catches movement under the feeders and I smile to think I’m being given a firm reminder from yet another wild species: “Don’t kid yourself, lady – we own this parcel, not you!”
Pat Devereux is a copy editor for The Union and a member of the Nevada County Hiking Club.
Contact her c/o The Union, 11464 Sutton Way, 95945, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published on 2/8/2001.
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