by Rex Burress

 Over at Blue Oak Meadow above the Feather River at Oroville, California, a family of Wild Turkeys haunts the hills. Sometimes you can see them warily crossing the withered summer fields to reach the brush patches almost as if timid about being seen - as secretive as the sensitive deer that also occupy the woody land.

There is always a certain delight in seeing those creatures of the wild interacting with their environment and exercising remarkable senses tuned to lean agile bodies. Their presence indicates the essence of wildness and freedom, and a self-sufficiency of survival. A nature watcher never tires of seeing wildlife over and over again.

I am gravely concerned about the loss of habitat and wildlife when those terrible wildfires rage over the wilderness, displacing or killing turkeys and towhee. Even though there are advocates of reducing brush and forest to lessen the impact of fire, those places are still the home of animals poised on a tenuous existence, and they deserve consideration. Where will the scrub-jay go if there is no scrub?

Blue Oak Meadow has fared well for a number of years, ungrazed and weedy with many oak seedlings peeking through the protective cover. The slow transitions of the seasons and invasive species have made the area a sort of natural laboratory, but I wonder for how long. "For Sale" signs are indicated for the 80 acres, and it (like every California dry-land habitat) is poised on the brink of fire death every summer.

One of the recent transitions at Blue Oak Meadow has been the expansion of the Wild Turkeys. The adjoining neighborhood of neatly manicured, well-watered residential yards has become an alluring temptation for the flock of turkeys. Although they slink along in their cautious instinctive way, constantly on the alert in the brown meadows as they search for seeds, the call of man's oasis has overcome their reclusive habits.

Neighbor Frank, who lives next to the meadow, has been coddling his collection of yard plantings through the dry season, attentive to daily watering a nice new stand of tender-leafed gazanias, and he was bemoaning the invasion of the turkeys.

"Those cotton-pickin', long-legged bastards plucked every blossom off my plants," he bemoaned. "I'd fry me a bird, but those rangy stragglers wouldn't have a pound of meat on them."

Another neighbor was out with his B.B. gun, wanting to discourage the turkey on his roof! "They scratch on the shingles, and I don't want that," he said. "They also nip my flowers and dig holes in the lawn." Even as I had left the meadow, a dozen turkeys had scattered to the trees of the homeowners, perhaps aware of the hunter I saw stalking the meadow thickets with his shotgun ready to go. Where can a turkey go?!

Imagine! A moist green bed of tasty plants with snails and things just across the road from the drab fields - seemingly a paradise grown for animals! Like Californian Amerindians, several wild species are giving up the old ways for the luxury of civilization. The turkeys would probably think the outdoor habitat belongs to them, even though original homelands for their predecessors were in the eastern U.S.A.

"You can watch turkeys right out of your window, Frank, and I hardly ever enjoy even a distant view out in the meadow," I lamented.

Frank wasn't too happy about the deer either. "They snip off my shrubs, and even shake potted plants out of their pots!" Nature next door has become something to contend with for Frank and his friends!

Later, I watched nine turkeys in a yard next to the meadow. Mrs. Fletcher had explained how she enjoyed the turkeys in her spacious oasis and had even put out seeds for them, which they ignored. "They like to poke in the yard and snatch things off the shrubs. Those holes don't hurt the lawn, do they?" she asked. "They even fly onto my rooftop, and I'm not too fond of the slimy black droppings they leave in the driveway."

The nine lanky exploring birds indeed poked around the yard that morning, and even opened those closely guarded wings and, with a burst of power, lifted to the garage top. Wild Turkeys are no fluffy bunch of feathers like we see on the cover of sporting magazines - at least when the male is not strutting - but rather trim, tight, torpedo-like oval bodies supported by stilty-looking legs. You are reminded of ostrich, except the head is skinny-looking skin with touches of blue. They can trot along smoothly on those strong sinewy shafts.

Soon they glided off the garage and leaped and flew over the fence separating the yard from the meadow. It is there that they can blend with the surroundings and feel at home.

The introduction of turkeys into the American West, and even the reintroduction into my home state of Missouri, has been nothing short of remarkable. Often you can see large flocks cruising through the oak forests of Table Mountain, and the skillet-sized birds have become a popular sporting target for hunters. A California Turkey Federation attracts many sportsmen, and their popular events include benefit dinners, turkey-calling demonstrations, and stocking turkey in remote areas.

Those turkey hunters dress in big-bucks camouflage clothing and carry expensive equipment. I have a camouflage-colored camp, and once when I was crossing a fence after bird watching, a passing motorist called you, "You damn turkey hunter!" In my nature pack I also have a turkey call that was given to me - a cute little box that makes squeaking sounds, and attracts more kids than turkeys. But I have never shot a turkey, although my Dad bagged a few in Missouri after they had been restocked. Turkey, like deer, tend to make a hunter's pulse quicken and the tactical schemes multiply!

Turkeys tend to roost in trees at night. Meadow walker Tobey said they were still roosting in a dead snag by the road as he walked by. Once a couple of young turkey hunters camped under a tree after chasing shadows all day, and next morning a splot of defecation on the camper's bag indicated that a flock of turkeys were just overhead! Too late - the thundering herd blasted off downhill! Unfortunately, of the 9,000 species of birds on earth, turkeys have been among about 300 notable game birds in the world, including doves and quail. All birds are edible, but some fly faster, and are more eagerly pursued as a gunshot challenge.

The turkey was once nominated for our national bird instead of the eagle, and Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the skunk our national animal because it is armed for defense and not for offense. The turkey can only run, and eat acorns, and hide in the hills - and excite bird watchers as well as home owners! May the turkey survive its pursuers and prosecutors!

© 2000 Rex Burress
September 20, 2000