Wild turkeys are always in motion.
Their persistent mobility has been brought home to me (literally) this winter by a flock of about a dozen that frequented the district around our house. The big dark birds would show up every few weeks, whereupon I would hustle to fetch the camera. I had visions of capturing a wildlife-calendar-worthy shot: the turkeys were so close.
Hunters report that wild turkeys are wily, cautious, and smart, ready to either speed-walk into cover or flush and fly at the first sign of human presence, but our overwintering flock was blasé. When I’d step outside in pursuit of a picture, they’d simply redirect their deliberate pacing and scratching a few feet further removed from the house. I hardly needed to use the camera’s zoom lens, and I could click away with impunity.
I took pictures of solitary birds. I framed group shots. I tried for close-ups. Some of the dozens of pictures I accumulated over the winter were okay in a documentary sort of way: photographic evidence of the proximity of wild turkeys to our place of residence. None were striking, though, and most were just bad. Some depicted turkey-hued abstract shapes against the straw-colored backdrop of our dry winter.
It didn’t help that the turkeys usually came by the house in early morning, when dull flat light conspired with my lack of a tripod to produce photos that were either dark or blurry or both. The turkeys’ unceasing movement was the bigger challenge, though. Unlike deer, who are cocky enough to stop and stare, effectively posing for the camera, or cottontail rabbits, which obligingly freeze motionless, the turkeys were never stationary. They pecked. They strolled at a placid and deliberate but unceasing pace. They scratched. They bobbed their prehistoric-looking heads. Whether walking straight toward the house or offering an appealing profile aspect, they showed an uncanny talent for pivoting the second I pressed the camera’s shutter button.
Toward the end of winter, my favorite turkey-related picture was of the dirt under the barn’s shed roof. After the flock spent the morning gleaning seeds there, the entire expanse was comprehensively rearranged with marks from pecking and scratching. Any scrap of a hoof-print had been replaced by tiny dotted pits from the turkeys’ beaks, footprints reminiscent of peace signs, and scratches like an ancient alphabet.
Then, before sunrise on the first Saturday of March, a honking bird call summoned me out of a deep dumb sleep. I thought the house was being buzzed by low-flying Canada geese, but when the insistent call didn’t move away, my brain reconsidered. Turkey?
Stepping out onto the deck was like walking onto a balcony overlooking the dance floor in an avian singles bar. A mob of turkeys milled on the hillside, the toms fluffed and primped for courtship.
If there’s such a thing as bronzed chocolate, that’s what color wild turkeys are. Carried erect, the faintly iridescent brown feathers were sculptural. The strutting males carried their baby blue chins tucked tight to their dark bodies, the better to show off the colored skin of their heads and wattles, some of which flushed an impassioned red. The brown-on-brown pattern on their carefully fanned tail feathers was set off with creamy ivory bands, and the vivid brown and tan streaks of their wing feathers, extended stiffly to the ground, looked like elaborate basketry.
The males traced circles and serpentines and figure-eights, trying to flash their full-frontals to the hens, which they outnumbered three or four to one. Scrums formed, with a hen at the center, and broke up as she wandered away, seemingly indifferent but perhaps tittering self-consciously, not willing to tip off which fellow had caught her eye.
The visual show was something else, but the sound was astonishing as well. The hens sang a soft backup of muttered clucks to the toms’ complicated bass line of throaty burbles, thrums, and hums. High keeching solos broke out above the jazzy improvisation, and the entire chorus was accompanied by scratchy percussion from dragging wings and shuffling feet, like maracas shaken in no particular rhythm.
I’d been watching and listening and snapping pictures for almost fifteen minutes when the females decided to move on. They headed west at a fast and purposeful walk, leaving the males to wheel around one another for a hapless moment before setting off after the girls. Their come-hither struts deteriorated into comic bumbles of wings bouncing off shrubs and neat tail arches collapsing in the effort to hustle over uneven ground.
It’s not often a person gets a chance to witness the intimacies of animal ritual up so close you don’t need binoculars or a spotting scope. Rarer still, surely, is to observe such a spectacle in one’s bathrobe. My pictures were, true to form, suggestive of the events but not exactly remarkable.
Lucky me, then, that I got a second once-in-a-lifetime chance—including the bathrobe part—a few days later. The turkeys returned, the toms preening and muttering their hottest pickup lines, wing feathers scratching over the cold ground of a late winter morning. The day was more advanced this time, the sun’s soft yellow light catching in artfully fanned tails and glinting off the scalloped pattern of feathers standing up over each bronze-tinted body.
A few of the photos came close to my wildlife photography fantasies, even if the turkeys didn’t exactly stand still.