2016-11-23 / Nature

A Wild Turkey Tale


Turkeys have 5,000-6,000 feathers. Males typically have a "beard," a tuft of coarse hair (modified feathers) growing from the center of the breast. Beards average 9 inches in length. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Turkeys have 5,000-6,000 feathers. Males typically have a "beard," a tuft of coarse hair (modified feathers) growing from the center of the breast. Beards average 9 inches in length. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Editor’s Note: In honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and our columnist Jack Kelly, who passed away just a month ago, we are running this article which first ran many years ago. It was one of his favorites.

2014 Author’s Note: The first fan of this column and its biggest supporter, my mom, passed away recently. Theresa Marie Kelly, and her love of nature, was the subject of a few stories in this space over the past four years plus. Mom had a great sense of humor and she loved a funny story. Her favorite column ran three years ago and involved my ineptness and naiveté when I first began my excursions into the natural world. So for Mom, here is a repeat of an amusing incident that always brings a smile.

By Jack Kelly

A friend of mine once told me that 95 percent of life involves just showing up, and the other 5 percent is what you do with it. This principle also applies to nature photography. If you make yourself available, nature will find you. However, you do need to exercise caution, because as I have found out the hard way, nature can bite, claw, or peck when you least expect it.

Once I was driving on Wapping Road in Middletown; my destination was Sandy Point Beach in Portsmouth. There had been a report of 20 horned grebes, in mating colors, just offshore. I was hoping to photograph the flock before they left the region on migration to the north.

As I passed the intersection of Wapping Road and Peckham Lane, a mature, female red-tailed hawk flew over the road in front of me. She appeared to be carrying nesting material in her talons and landed in a tree in the adjacent field not 75 feet from the roadside stone wall. I pulled over quickly and parked as close to the wall as possible, so as not to impede traffic.

I was excited because it was mating season for hawks and I was hoping that the female was beginning to build a nest. My eyes were locked on her as I grabbed my camera and scrambled from my vehicle. The field was unkempt, with high grasses, dense thickets, and small scrub brushes. This would be a perfect hunting habitat for a pair of raptors, should this be a nesting site.

I figured it wouldn’t bother anyone if I hopped the wall and crept a little closer to my quarry. Hindsight would later show that I was about to make the first of several tactical errors. As I navigated my way into the field, I realized that I wasn’t alone. Emerging from the tall grasses and thickets to my left was a flock of 11 wild turkeys. Although I had seen members of this species before, it was always from a distance, and I’d never had an opportunity to photograph this historic breed.

I was amazed by the sheer size of these very large and colorful birds. I’d once read that some adult males can reach over 24 pounds and stand nearly four feet tall, while the females weigh from 5.5- 12 pounds and stand about three feet tall. Six males, or “tom” turkeys, fanned out their tail feathers and began to advance in my direction, while the females scurried back into the underbrush. As the males approached they emitted “gobble-gobbles,” and I joyfully took picture after picture of my subjects.

I was enjoying myself so much that I failed to realize that the turkeys were surrounding me. It’s important to note that at this juncture in my photographic and wildlife experience, I was very naïve about the behaviors of many creatures in the wild. I was about to get an abject lesson in respecting the world.

Suddenly, I felt a piercing pain in my backside. As I turned to face my attacker, I was struck a second time in almost the same spot. I knew I was in trouble and tried to remember my wilderness survival training from the Boy Scouts. “Don’t panic! Don’t show fear. Drop and roll up into a ball.” No! No! That was for bears! A third attack brought me back to my senses and a keen awareness of my predicament. I did what came naturally at that point: I ran like the dickens and jumped to the top of the wall. The turkeys were in hot pursuit and my self-preservation actions seemed to agitate them all the more.

As I stood at the top of the wall, I had a flashback to first grade at St. Augustin’s School and my teacher, Sister Mary Rita. The Sister had her students trace their hands on construction paper and make colored turkey decorations for Thanksgiving. I remembered that I gave mine to my grandmother that year and she hung it in her kitchen, where it remained for many years. I couldn’t believe that I was remembering something like that, at a time like this.

Meanwhile, the turkeys were flying over the wall and landing on the grassy area by the roadway. I tried to step down from the wall in an effort to get to my car, but one large, truly evil-looking bird kept trying to peck at me. The other turkeys were surrounding my car, and seemed to be taunting and mocking me with loud gobbles and wing gestures.

I decided to climb onto the roof of the vehicle, drop down to the driver’s side, and make my escape. As I crawled across the roof I started to have terrible visions of the television news trailer: “Newport Man Pecked to Death by Turkeys, Film at Eleven.” Or that the Animal Planet or Discovery channels would do a documentary on killer turkeys, and that the poor, sordid tale of my ignominious demise would be the lead story.

As the tense standoff continued, I raised my camera to photograph the largest turkey of the group, which seemed to be the ringleader, near the rear of my vehicle. As I looked through the lens I was mortified by what I saw. There was a sedan at the stop sign of Peckham Lane, and the older couple in the car were waving, pointing and laughing at my precarious position!

Realizing just how ludicrous I looked, I gathered what was left of my dignity and manhood and dropped to the street. I lunged for the door handle­– it was locked! As I fumbled for the keypad in my pocket, I suffered another attack on my backside. The turkeys had malevolent and bloodthirsty looks in their eyes, and they were closing in for the kill. I was able to open the door in the nick of time and evaded the final battle with my feathered foes.

I heard an automobile horn. Looking in my rear-view mirror, I watched the couple depart the area. They were still laughing and waving as they drove away. I started the engine and sounded my horn, forcing the turkeys away long enough to leave this debacle behind. A biologist friend later explained to me that I’d probably wandered into a nesting area. You can’t negotiate with angry parents defending their young.

As I drove to my original destination, shifting uncomfortably in my seat, I returned to my memories of Sister Mary Rita. I remembered how she taught us about the wild turkey all those years ago. According to history, turkeys had been part of the Pilgrims’ diet and had sustained the Plymouth colony during their first harsh year in the New World.

Sister also taught us that Benjamin Franklin had wanted the wild turkey to be the national bird and symbol of our newly formed country in 1790. He felt that it was a “noble bird” and that the Bald Eagle was nothing more than a scavenger. Then again, Ben was the one who coined, “Look before you leap.” If you don’t, you might wind up with a pain in your behind!

Turkey Facts

. The adult male normally weighs 11-24 pounds and measures 39-49 inches.

. The adult female is typically much smaller at 5.5-12 pounds and is 30-37 inches long.

. The record-setting adult male wild turkey, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, weighed 38 pounds.

. Females lay an average clutch of 10-12 eggs over a two-week period at a rate of one egg per day.

. Turkeys have between 5,000 and 6,000 feathers.

. Wild turkeys roost in trees at night for protection and feed at dawn and in late afternoon hours.

. Turkeys are capable of running at speeds of up to 25 mph, and can fly at about 55 mph for about one quarter mile.

. Juvenile males are known as jakes and juvenile females are known as jennies.

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