Do Tell


Image by Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay

T’other day, it were pourin’ down when the turkeys came from the woods–single-file, bunched, single-file, bunched–like one of them wire slink toys kids like to make march down the stairs. It were a miserable rain, what the olders call a “wet rain,” and by that they ain’t bein’ stupid or smarty-pants sarcastic. What they mean is rain that does more than wet you on the outside; it gets you from the inside, too. How’s rain make wet on the inside something that’s already pretty sloppy once you cut past the skin bag that holds us together? Why, it’s the chill. That chill, it don’t sink into you, it digs into you, like fingers. It burrows in like chiggers. It chews its way deep inside and wraps around your bones until you can’t get warm for nothin’.

I wondered if the turkeys felt the same chill as me. They don’t have the luxury of a home fire when the outdoors is cemetery cold. Oh, they can roost, but roostin’ don’t fill an empty belly and they’re all about belly-fillin’ which suits me just fine. They rake the forest duff, all those fallen leaves and twigs and whatnot, spyin’ out bugs, worms, ticks, and whatever else they call food. It’s a hard life, bein’ outdoors in all seasons. They’re welcome to whatever they can find, most ‘specially them ticks.

So it’s rainin’ steady, sometimes gentle, what we call a “soaker,” but more often drumming down in lines so thick you can see ’em, but not past ’em, like a curtain of gray wet, what I’ve heard call a “goat-drowner,” and here come the turkeys. I’d like to say I can tell ’em apart, but that’d be a lie. They’re pretty much of a size until spring when the toms do their Thanksgiving impression and puff out all plump and gorgeous like they know it, bronzy-green, tails erect and fan-spread, chest feathers fluffed, wings rattled half-open to display the white bars, naked heads flushed scarlet and blue. Gobble-gobble-gobble! If you never heard it, you should. It’s one of them sounds everyone should hear at least once in their life.

In between spates of Biblical flooding, they spreads out across the yard, each to its own, hunting-pecking. Then the rain comes, flash-flood quick. They freeze, bodies hunched and bunched, each like a single fist of feathers. Water subdues their colors ’til you half expect to see it run down their legs and puddle on the ground. There’s a line of lighter feathers that runs up their backs from tail to neck, splitting them in half. It’s murky in the wet half-light, like cream with a bit of mud mixed in.

Meleagris gallopavo silvestris. I only know that because I looked it up. Makes me wish I’d named the biggest male “Silvester” or “Pavo,” but he’s been “Barry White” ever since I first heard his sultry, deep-throated, come-hither call last spring. This boy, he’s all about one thing. But today I learned a big mistake. I thought the flock was him and eight hens, but I’m wrong. How wrong will depend on my ability to count next time they come through. I’ve been wondering about these spiny-hairy beards that hang down a turkey’s chest and it turns out only the males have them, which means a good portion of Barry’s harem is made up of other males. Not only that, but I read that males and females mostly travel separately except when it comes time to breed. Now I understand why we didn’t see any poults (chicks) taggin’ along last spring.

I also understand that what I really know about turkeys could be stuffed in a sack the size of a walnut and have space left over. That’s okay. With luck, I got time to learn.

Greeting the Birds

003bIn “Genuflection,” poet Billy Collins talks about the Irish habit of tipping one’s cap to the first magpie of the day and wishing it a good morning. We don’t have magpies where I live, but the poem made me wonder how it is that I developed the habit of greeting birds. I can’t remember when it happened, only that I’ve always done it.

I’m not particularly attuned to birds, although I like them. Truth is, they intimidate the shit out of me. I fear I’ll inadvertently do them harm. (There’s some basis to that belief, but that’s another story.)

There’s a surprising lack of birdish cacophony where I live on the edge of the woods. This is due, in part, to the presence of bird-eating raptors, but mostly, I believe, because our neighbors allow their cats to roam outside. Three of them routinely prowl through our yard, enraging our own cat, Ruby, when they dare to invade our back deck (excuse me, her back deck). Still, a fair number of birds make their presence known with song and shriek, staring danger in the face, daring those who would eat them to take note and do something about it, go ahead, I dare ya.

IMG_0207Two or three years before my mother’s death, when she lived with us, we installed a winter bird feeder for her enjoyment. We took it down after she died, not because we didn’t enjoy feeding the birds, but because the fallen seed drew mice and squirrels. I didn’t mind the red squirrel and his mate because they were quiet and polite. The gray squirrels, on the other hand, were marauding bastard assholes.  God forbid the feeder be empty (or put away in the spring). These overblown little shits would glare at me through the slider and pound their squirrel hands against the glass. One even went so far as to try to intimidate me by scaling the side of the casement and hanging at eye-level. (I let the dog out after that one. There was no way Holly could catch him, but the mad dash for the trees made him reevaluate his trespass.)

But we were talking about birds.

The feeder gathered a pair of cardinals (I’d never realized the muted glory that is the female of the species until she landed right in front of me, separated by the glass of the slider), black-capped chickadees, northern flickers, raucous blue jays, a single Carolina wren (who, sated, would perch on the edge of the feeder, in the winter’s sun, and close its eyes in warm bliss), dark eyed juncos, downy woodpeckers (who often as not drilled the side of the house rather than the hanging blocks of suet), house finches, mourning doves, pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmouse (titmice? titmeese?), nuthatches, and wood thrush.

IMG_3452Crows gather first thing in the morning to caw and gossip, and I always speak to them. When we first moved here, a red-tailed hawk would drop onto the same branch every time she saw me outside reading, and we’d talk, exchanging news, first her calling softly, then me replying. The morning sun is heralded from the top of a cottonwood by the mister of the cardinal clan (a service for which he’s thanked), and the autumn sky is slashed by the dark chevron of Canada geese, their bicycle-horn cry filling the air long before they’re seen and long after they depart. At night, it’s the owls–most often the great-horned–who greet me before bed. If I’m patient and sit still, I can call back to him and he’ll fly in close.

It’s much the same on the marsh trail where I walk the dog. The ducks we encounter (mallards, wood ducks, buffleheads, mergansers, and many others I can’t name) are shy, elusive, and would rather not converse. Geese warn us to “Keep that wolf away!” Hawks of all sorts. The baby owl who perched on an eye-level branch not two feet away and kept up a living dialogue for several minutes. (“Is this the world?! Isn’t it amazing?!”) The occasional glimpse of bald eagles (always silent, little more than a silhouette in the morning mist), an egret, and once, an astonishing pair of ibis with their curved beaks. The catbird who let me approach within inches. The orioles and their sweet music. Goldfinches bright as hoarded pirate doubloons, a rare waxwing.

I greet them all, speak to them en masse or individually, but the ones I never fail to herald are the heron; motionless, all but disguised among the upright trunks of drowned and broken trees, head dipped just so seeking the tell-tale flicker of fish or frog. Clad in blue-gray, they strike me as almost ecclesiastical, the priests and priestesses of the marshland. To them I accord a moment’s pause on my walk, a deep bow, and a murmured, “Good morning, Your Grace.” God knows what I look like from a distance to other walkers, bending from the waist like one of those “drinking bird” toys that bobs down to a glass of water back. Maybe I’m becoming the crazy lady of the swamp.

Works for me.


Ooh, baby, ooh, baby

IMG_2638Most mornings, I wake up somewhere between four and five o’clock. Often it’s courtesy of my cat Ruby, who seems to feel that’s an appropriate hour for breakfast. Lately, however, my alarm has been a soft burbling noise from the woods behind our house, the wake-up call of the local turkey flock.

At some point (and there’s no telling when, as they keep to their own schedule), they’ll appear, stalking through the yard on lean legs, walking with slow ceremony as they search the ground for nuts, berries, and other choice morsels. Most of the year, it’s just The Girls (as I call them), six or eight hens busy about their business. In spring (in other words now) they’re joined by a robust and handsome fellow I’ve nicknamed “Barry White” for his sultry mating call. Barry postures and preens, puffs his feathers until he’s almost spherical, and fans his spectacular tail feathers as he courts his women. (One year, we had a flock of 15 come through, with a fully adult male and two juveniles, all working hard to lure the ladies.)

I suspect Barry will be successful in his wooing, and I look forward to seeing the hatchlings come through the yard, following close on mother’s heels, mindful of the raptors, coyote, and fox that also shelter in our woods.