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Jenifer’s Journal: Talking turkey

I’m talking turkey today. While Islanders may continue splitting hares about the actual derivation, not to mention definition, of “harelegger,” I maintain that, in the past decade or two, it is the wild turkey that has become the de facto, and rightful sacred cow of Shelter Island.

Sadly, aside from the eponymous phrase for this column which means “speaking frankly about a subject,” the turkey otherwise has been given a pretty bad name. For instance, there’s the phrase “going cold turkey” — often an arduous and unsuccessful process — and then, there are the highly unflattering slang “synonyms” like “dud,” loser” and theatrical “flop.”

Yes, they are ungainly creatures, unpretty and far from unflappable, but oddly engaging, too. In fact, I’ve become increasingly fond of them. Somehow I don’t mind slowing to a crawl and waiting until they turkey-trot themselves across the road. And they’re funny! They travel in sizable groups and always seem to me to be like tourists just let off a bus and looking for their tour guide. All they need are sunglasses and some maps.

A la “a pride of lions” or a “murder of crows,” I wondered whether they have a collective noun for turkeys. There are three, apparently: “gang” (oh, what I wouldn’t give to see them all dressed up like Brando in The Wild One) and “posse.” Yes, they could be the whole cast of Gunsmoke! The third noun, “rafter,” was puzzling at first.  Anyway, though their size can be quite imposing, unlike certain truly foul geese I have known, they seem to have no interest in terrorizing their human neighbors. In fact they are quite benign and possess a kind of goofy dignity that becomes positively Rooseveltian when you see them with their young.

I remember, several years ago, watching a nursery school gaggle of turkey chicks being shepherded (multiple mixed animal metaphor alert!) across the road. Maybe I found them so heart-twistingly adorable because I knew, as did our editor Ambrose Clancy who wrote in his classic Turkey Island article for the Reporter back in 2021, “… the first impression is how magnificently ugly they are, with the heads of space aliens and those dangling red wattles,” that they wouldn’t be “adorable” for long, except to the adult birds — teachers? Young mothers? And one older-seeming white-feathered dowager that cared for them. And turkeys taught me another thing or two just this past Labor Day weekend.

I had turned into the driveway and noticed that the “ladies” were chaperoning their half-grown charges, the ones I’ve been watching since they were tiny chicks, across my yard as they often have. I just sat in my car, idly watching them, when suddenly one of the adults began flapping her sizable wings and making a mad dash toward the big maple tree.

Against the laws of physics, she flapped her way 20 feet straight up to the first branch where she landed briefly before continuing her improbable ascent upwards another 20 feet, fluttering from branch to higher branch with the agility of a Cirque de Soleil headliner.

Impressive. As Clancy had pointed out in his article, turkeys are surprisingly … surprising. I had thought that like penguins, they couldn’t fly until, years ago, I came across several of them perched in a queue along a cable wire some 15 feet above the road. But now, the second adult replicated her sister’s feat, her wings flapping a flurry of leaves loose as she charged upwards.

Then I noticed that the seven or so “teen-aged” chicks had moved to the side of my house, almost out of sight, while the third adult had gone halfway up my back steps, clearly trying to keep watch over them. There was a long pause in the activity, like before a foul shot, and then a small turkey dashed into view, hurtling tree-ward. My heart was in my throat as it furiously flapped its half-grown wings. 

Would it make that first branch? It did! And then, one-by-one, the remaining chicks each flapped their hearts out and up while the older bird remained poised on the steps, patient, vigilant, until the last one had reached the branch. Only then, after craning her neck just to make sure all her charges had safely left terra firma, the old turkey rose flapping from the steps and flew up into the tree herself.

A flying lesson, of course. As this new school year begins, I think we are all teachers in a way, helping our young to balance security and risk, giving them a sense of confidence and community, being willing role models for the patience and persistence they will need in order to learn and grow. As the old turkey saying goes, “It takes a rafter (or branch) to raise a chick.”