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Wild turkeys of New Jersey

Su Lum

I lived in New Jersey for most of the first 20 years of my life, where the wildlife consisted of a few rabbits, a lot of woodchucks, an occasional pheasant and a rare deer. Now the place is so overrun with fauna it sounds like a wildlife sanctuary: birds tweeting, geese honking, woodpeckers hammering, crows cawing, herds of deer that stamp aggressively if you step out of the kitchen door, still lots of woodchucks and, on our last visit, a flock of wild turkeys.I attribute the change to additional flora – the acres of woods that have sprung up like a tropical rainforest around the house and across the street – and laws requiring the restriction of dogs. Back in the old days, with our dachshunds Heidi and Truchie patrolling the property, we wouldn’t have seen 20 wild turkeys puttering around in our backyard just before dark. We tiptoed outside for a closer look, but the turkeys – big mothers, easily 25 pounds dressed out on the table – paid no attention at all. Kind of like our bears in the alleys, they just went about their business pecking spilled birdseed or worms or whatever they were finding. Where did they live? Across the street in the big woods by the river? Did they sleep in the trees? How did the turkeys cross the road? WHY would the turkeys cross the well-traveled road?The turkeys appeared every evening until the big snow storm, then vanished. Do turkeys fly south? If so, it was a good time to get out of Dodge.A couple of days after the storm, my daughter Hillery called up the stairs to the attic, saying “You have GOT to see this!” It was 7:30 in the morning and I tumbled out of bed and down to Gran’s room where, from the belly windows overlooking the road, we watched an astounding turkey display.Five or six turkeys were high up in the trees, and the rest were behind what amounts to a guardrail on the forest side, facing the picket fence on the house side. To cross the road, the turkeys would have to make a long, diagonal trip to the driveway or take to the air, and we hoped it would be the latter because traffic was flying around the corner, and carnage seemed inevitable.The weird thing was that all of the ground turkeys had their tailfeathers fanned out in full display, and all of them were gobbling so loud that between the decibel level and the feathers they looked like a flock of 100 very angry turkeys.They seemed to be playing some kind of avian Russian roulette with the traffic. Two or three alpha turkeys would step out into the road up to the yellow line in the center, gobbling like mad at cars, which would screech to a halt or drive around them. The turkeys in the trees seemed to be acting as lookouts, but not to give the others the all clear signal when it was safe to cross, but to say, “Car’s coming – go get it!” I was reminded of Gary Larson’s cow cartoons in “The Far Side,” which I miss to this day.They played this game for 20 minutes and then they just all went for it – crossed the road on the diagonal, tail feathers still up, gobbling furiously, cars stopped in both directions just like in the book “Make Way for Ducklings,” except there was no police officer directing traffic for them. That evening, they took a more dangerous route back across the road, this time with feathers and heads down, running. Aware of the peril, but proof that somehow, someway, even very disparate species can manage to coexist on the planet. Su Lum is a longtime local who never adapted to New Jersey. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.


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