As Thanksgiving approaches, the groaning table has been turned on me and I find myself looking over my shoulder.
I am being stalked by wild turkeys.
If you’ve never seen a wild turkey before, except on the label of a bottle of fine bourbon, let me explain the difference between the domesticated, robust-breasted, and fatted-for-the-table version as opposed to the wild specimen of haughty demeanor, buzzard-like visage, and astonishingly tall dimensions. The domesticated turkey we’re accustomed to seeing in supermarkets or butcher shops is encased in plastic, plucked naked, and often frozen. The female wild turkey is arrayed in a dense covering of autumn-hued feathers, with a blood-colored wattle that stretches from beak to breast top, and grey-green legs that strut in a manner that telegraphs “Don’t mess with me.”
And they are sneaky.
My first close encounter this fall was on my way to work one morning in late October. I was casually strolling the four blocks from my Oakland flat to the train station to catch the 6:33 to San Francisco when all of a sudden wild turkey #1 appeared, running around the corner in front of Zachary’s Chicago Pizza, and stopped six feet ahead of me. Perhaps she was surprised to see me, too. Had she been poking through the dumpster at the pizzeria looking for scraps of crust, nuggets of Italian sausage, or rafts of cheese? Where did she come from? My neighborhood is urban, although the Berkeley Hills, miles away are said to be a natural refuge for the birds.
We both froze and eyed each other. She looked like she was about four feet tall. With a menacing beak. I moved to the left. The turkey did a little figure eight and faked me out on which direction she was headed next. I decided to cross the road. The turkey followed me on a parallel path. Oddly, there was no car traffic—a rarity for College Avenue during commute hours, especially a block from the train station.
I made a dash for the sidewalk on the other side of the road. The turkey did another figure eight then ran right up the middle of College Avenue in a hot trot, only to stop still as a car (finally!) approached. The car braked to avoid hitting the bird. The driver and turkey locked eyes in a classic Mexican Standoff, neither of them moving. The theme song from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” played in my head. Late for my train, I ran to the station, shaking off the surreal encounter.
My second turkey trauma happened the following weekend. I like to spend Sunday mornings walking a three-mile trail around a lake fifteen minutes from my home. Lafayette Reservoir is popular with runners, walkers, and dog owners. At 7 a.m., the habitués of the walking trail tend to be the over-60 crowd. I hear bits of conversation from people walking in pairs or groups as they approach. The women tend to talk about real estate, children, schools, gardening, appliances, lotions, book clubs, movie rentals, yoga classes, low-fat recipes, and the merits of going gluten and dairy free.
The men tend to talk about their health problems.
That morning another subject was the talk of the trail.
“Wild turkeys ahead!” a woman called out as she passed me in power-walk mode, her arms pumping, and eyes focused straight ahead with intense concentration.
Sure enough, as I rounded a turn at the bottom of a dip in the trail surrounded by lush vegetation, California style, of scrub oaks, eucalyptus trees, wild rosemary, and spent blackberry vines, I was unsettled by a whole flock of female wild turkeys, (Where were the males?!) some pecking at the ground or looking for the next food source.
They blocked the trail. I decided to walk around them. Several birds ran over to confront me and opened their mouths at me with menace. Were they hissing? Do turkeys hiss? Whatever the sound was, it wasn’t a warm fuzzy greeting.
I swiveled and moved to the other side of the trail. Another group of birds blocked my way and repeated the open-mouthed (beaked?) intimidation.
I faked a dash to their left and ran to the right, off the paved walking trail and onto a dirt path that led to a fishing dock. A turkey ran after me. Just one. I ran to the end of the dock looking over my shoulder and found myself with no place to go but into the water, and a turkey still standing at the end of the trail where it met the dock. What to do? Yell and wave my hands? I was mortified and somewhat frozen by indecision on how to get out of my predicament.
Suddenly, I heard the gleeful scream of a young boy.
“Turkey, turkey, turkey, turkey, turkey!” shrieked a 4-year-old as he scuttled down the trail after the bird. The turkey spread its wings and flew – flew!—away from the child, right above me, flapping frantically over the edge of the lake, and landed on shore twenty feet away where there was another dirt path leading to another fishing dock. Then it scrambled into the woods.
The child watched the bird’s flight, squealed in delight, and then ran back up the path to meet his mother. I walked off the fishing dock and back onto the trail where the mom turned around, grinned at me and apologized, “I’m sorry if my son scared away that turkey. Did you get a close look?”
“Close enough,“ I replied. And I continued my walk, warily keeping an eye out for other members of the flock.
The third turkey confrontation happened all too soon after that.
After my walk at the reservoir, I decided to go to Peet’s, a Bay Area coffee institution, to get a cup and relax a bit after the eventful morning. I ambled to the shop and eyed the sugar cookies in the shape of traditional Thanksgiving cookies. None of those for me, thank you. I ordered my usual “smarge” – a small coffee in a large cup, ideal for sipping while walking, and headed back home taking a route through side streets flanked by gracious old craftsman homes.
I was savoring the classic fall foliage that we get in Northern California, breathing deep the aroma of fallen leaves and morning chimney smoke when I heard a chilling sound.
Gobble gobble. Well, it really did sound like that in a frenetic, operatic-tenor-with-a-bad-sore-throat sort of way.
I turned slowly around and discovered that a turkey, a hen, of course, was following me. I stopped and looked at her. She stopped and looked at me. She gobbled, thrusting her beak at me. I gulped. I backed up; she walked forward. I stopped; she stopped and nonchalantly looked around and made a few feigned attempts to peck at the pavement.
“Oh she won’t hurt you,” a woman called out, stepping forward from the end of a driveway flanked by redwood fencing. I hadn’t seen her and in my jittery state, I flinched when I heard her voice.
She was about four-foot-nothing and wore a housedress, a thick wool sweater, and fuzzy bedroom slippers.
“She just wants her breakfast from me,” the woman said.
And she walked ahead of me with a bowl of corn and seeds and placed it at the street curb. The turkey ran to the bowl and started to . . . well, gobble.
I smiled meekly, waved to the woman, and continued my walk home down Claremont Avenue, a busy street where surely no turkey, however brazen, dared to tread.
. . .
It has been weeks since my Close Encounters of the Wild Turkey Kind. I have a new appreciation for the grandeur and chutzpah of these birds.
Now, I am looking forward to my traditional Thanksgiving dinner gathering of college pals and extended family of friends. There will be 24 of us at the potluck buffet this year. However, I will not be the one with the electric carving knife working on one of the three big free-range birds, brined for days, and then cooked on the Weber grill. Instead, I will be sipping my wine and nibbling starters in the courtyard of the house where my friends host the feed-fest. But you can be sure I’ll be monitoring the access points to the house, keeping a close lookout for sneak attacks from suburban turkeys, and being especially attentive to my friend’s fishing stories.
I intend to stay close to my flock. Which just might be what Thanksgiving is really all about.
Where’s YOUR flock and how do you celebrate this best of all holidays?