Sighting the elusive campus turkeys

Maybe we can learn to live with more wild creatures, and not see them merely as an annoyance.

John Hoff

A week later, I’m still wondering why two wild turkeys were wandering around on campus over spring break.

Yes, wild turkeys. And I don’t mean the kind of Wild Turkey that makes you drunk, but the kind of wild turkeys some people hunt.

Oh, wouldn’t that be a spectacle – wild turkey hunting on Washington Avenue? How quickly it could morph into hunting Golden Gophers.

I’m pouting at this point. I’m sulking because I sense you might not believe me. You might think I’m pulling some kind of creative writing stunt, and all I really want is for you to play some kind of Big Bird from Sesame Street “imagination game” with me, envisioning a campus where wild turkeys wander around with the squirrels.

But seriously, I saw two wild turkeys on Sunday, March 11. I was near Amundson Hall with my 9-year-old son, walking toward Village Wok to have the N-4 special with extra shrimp. Two wild turkeys – both female, I believe – were walking calmly in the grass, looking for bugs or whatever it is they find to eat in the dirt. I froze, not wanting to frighten the birds into traffic.

“What are they?” my son Alex asked, wide-eyed.

I informed my son these were wild turkeys, and a sight like this was so extraordinarily rare, nobody would believe us. If somebody told me I’d see wild turkeys on campus, I would have laughed in his face. It was as likely, I thought, to see Bigfoot or a UFO.

And then I realized I had a disposable camera in my backpack. I try to always carry a camera with me, in case I need to document a fender bender or snap a Pulitzer Prize winning photo. Seriously, a guy who wasn’t even a journalist once took a photo of a firefighter giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a child, and won a Pulitzer. It’s one-in-a-million, but it sometimes happens.

I told my son to walk toward the turkeys, and I would try to photograph them. My first shot shows the birds many yards away, two dark blobs. I wanted to make sure I had some kind of photo, even a bad one, in case the turkeys got away. My second shot shows my son getting quite close to the turkeys, with two bystanders also looking toward the birds. My next two shots are from just five feet away, and successfully capture images of the birds, enough to distinguish them from, say, hawks or pheasants.

In my favorite shot, one of the birds is craning its neck, looking at a sickly plant in a ground-level window of Amundson Hall. Maybe it wonders, in its

bird brain, if a sickly plant might have delicious bugs.

Having successfully documented the turkeys, me and my son left them alone, still worried about frightening them into traffic. And yet the birds seemed to be handling themselves pretty well. I’m a transplanted country boy, and it has always been my experience that wild turkeys are not only very intelligent, but actually devious. If they live in brush down by the river, it makes sense they would wander the campus when it’s quiet, during spring break.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s my answer: they must live in the brush down by the river. Or do they? Did they get stranded on a big chunk of ice and float here from someplace more northern and woodsy? Did somebody drop them off as a kind of prank, or perhaps a visionary attempt to introduce wild turkeys to campus?

There are some critters like mice, rabbits and squirrels who share our campus environment. Sometimes these animals seem like an afterthought, a remnant. They live here simply because they have managed to survive human occupation of their home. Once this campus was a primeval forest, and all kinds of creatures dwelled here.

Now, only a few manage to remain; like Brother Mouse, Sister Rabbit and Cousin Squirrel. Could Stranger Turkey possibly join that small, desperate tribe of holdouts? What lost, ancient wisdom does Stranger Turkey bring? What is the meaning of his arrival? (Yes, these are things I say to amuse my child.)

The people who plan improvements and additions to our campus are providing many wonderful things, like a new stadium. In fact, I recently read the new stadium will be “changing the porcelain percentages,” and will have 400 fixtures for women, 280 for men in a visionary attempt at “potty parity.” Hooray for indoor plumbing and modern civilization.

But what I’d like to see on this campus is more trees. I’d like to see more plants of every variety, and I don’t mean the kind transplanted every spring by hardworking campus grounds crews. Those flowers are lovely, yes, but I’d like to see hardy things which turn green every spring all by themselves, without human intervention.

In fact, I’d like more nut trees to give our squirrel friends more variety. Yes, it is spring and mad, energetic sap flows through my veins, filling me with vision. The squirrels, they seem to speak to me, and they tell me what they want: more nuts! Specifically, they want black walnuts, chestnuts, and some beech nuts, if possible. (“Thank you,” say the squirrels, politely.)

With a critical mass of plants, maybe more animals will come. Maybe we can learn to live with more wild creatures, and not see them merely as an annoyance, a potential source of disease, or a danger to our precious traffic, fueled by Middle Eastern oil. If we all rode bikes and buses, running animals down with vehicles wouldn’t be so much of an issue.

This is what the coming of wild turkeys means to me. It makes me realize I like sharing the campus with animals, and these creatures enrich my life, and I wish there were a lot more of them.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]