Friday, May 17, 2019

3251. Short Story: Thelma, Louise, and Ginger

By Kamran Nayeri, May 17, 2019
Thelma, Louise, and Ginger with their grown up offspring. Photo: Kamran Nayeri

Wild  turkeys have been a part of my life since about eight years ago when I settled in northern California, outside of Sebastopol, a town of 8,000, in an agricultural-residential location.  The primary reason for choosing the house I live in was that it has a Lake Tahoe style design—essentially a 1,700 square-foot wooden cabin much of it in one large room with large picture windows that give the feeling of being outside while living inside. The large room faces a meadow that sits on a low grade slope leading to a creek that fills with runoff rain water in the rainy season. A narrow forested land sits on both sides of the creek with different species of tree, mostly native. But the tallest tree is a eucalyptus.

The forested area and the meadow provide good habitat for a range of wildlife.  The combination of the forested land and the meadow is ideal for bobcats. Although shy, I have seen them a few time—always solitary. Once I was able to photograph one who was preoccupied with hunting but turned around and looked into the camera.

The house sits  on two acres of land with mature tall pine and redwood trees on the northeastern and northern sides. Ever since I arrived I worked on a multi-year plan to turn the land more into a wildlife habitat and began to provide seed feeders for birds and a nectar feeder for humming birds. Building a 10,000-gallon pond with a waterfall which I populated with water plants and rescued fish invited wildlife from frogs to dragonflies as well as fish eating birds like herons and egrets and insect eating birds and in early spring mallard ducks.  A few times, the little daughter of my neighbor brought me turtles she found in the dry creek or on the road.  As soon as she let them loose by the pond they jumped in making me believe that they were happy finding a nice home. Later, I learned that they really will never stay.  A biologist friend also advised me that turtles that seem to be "lost" are probably nesting nearby where they are found. The best thing to do is to leave them alone and if they are in harms way helped them by putting them somewhere safe nearby.

I also spread seeds on the ground near the patio facing the meadow and the forested land. All kinds of birds come to eat seeds, from northern flickers to mourning doves, to  quails, and sparrows.  There is a feeder on the window glass filled with millet and sunflower seeds that brings finches and other small birds.

Over the past few years the news has spread in the birds community in the neighborhood that La casa de los gatos (this the name of the place I live in) is nice place to hang out and provides a fine menu on a daily basis.

While the invitation has been to all wildlife in the area, wild turkeys have come the dominant bird that visits here.  Not only there is ample acreage to roam around to eat nuts, seeds, grasses, and insect they like, there is also a buffet of seeds spread on a regular basis in a safe and relaxed place.  An additional benefit for those who decide to stay around is the ample roosting places atop the 60-foot high pine trees. In fact, when I had a professional company  to prune the pine trees they left on my request a few branches in each pine tree that were cleared of leaves and smaller branches to provide ample room for turkey to land on, something like a runway for wild turkeys that fly similar to airplane. Before dark, they gather near the pine trees and one by one run a few feet to take off and land on a lower branch of the tree and them make their way higher by flying up short distances.

The mating season
Wild turkeys are most active during their mating season, approximately from sometimes in February to sometimes in early June.  However, the season depends on the climate and the length of the day. The warmer the weather and the longer the day there would be more sex hormones in the turkey and there is more opportunity for the birds to mate (unlike humans wild turkeys do not date or mate at night).

Most of the year, wild turkeys live in sex-segregated flocks.  This happens as young male turkeys leave the flock of their mother and make their own flock.  Their mother and female siblings remain to make an all female flock.

During the mating season, the neighborhood male and female flocks converge. Dominant male turkeys gobble and strut while the females and some of the males who are not in the game of finding a mate spend their time eating.  From all appearances, the strutting male turkeys seem to be wasting their time. Females almost always ignore them.  But every once in a while some of the strutting males get lucky and a female who is receptive chooses one of them and crouches before him.  The lucky male then mounts her and for about 10 minutes it appears that he is using his feet to massage her back while keeping his balance. The female is largely covered by the larger male, only her head and neck showing from under his body.  At the magic moment copulation occurs which lasts less than a minute (that is why male turkeys are sometimes called "one minute wonder!"). As soon as that is over, the male leaves the female and gets back to strutting and the female gets back on her legs, flops her wings to get her plumage back in order, and begin to eat more seeds. The couple never talk to each other again! Meanwhile, the rest of the flock or any other bystanders (like myself) continue doing what they were doing (When asked one turkey replied: "What is the big deal?").

The prospective mother turkey breaks away from her flock and begins searching for a good nest site which would be out of view of predators but gives her a vantage point to look out for them. When it is the time, if the chosen nesting ground is not a depression in the ground, she shallowly scratches it to become a depression. In a two week period she lays 10-12 large eggs. Continuous incubation begins when the last egg is laid.  The mother turkey will only leave for a short period to feed and may remain on the nest for several consecutive days at a time.

Eggs will be incubated for 26-28 days. The mother turkey sits quietly and moves about every hour to turn and reposition the eggs. Hatching begins with pipping - the poult rotating within the shell, chipping a complete break around the large end of the egg. The mother turkey make soft clucks in response to begin to imprint the poults. Imprinting is a special form of learning which facilitates the rapid social development of the poults into adults. Damp poults free themselves but dry quickly so they can follow their mother away from the nest within 12-24 hours after hatching.


In their first day in the landscape, poults learn to respond to the mother turkey’s putt or alarm call before leaving the nest area and will respond by freezing or running to hide beneath the mother if she sounds the alarm call.  Poults learn within hours to mimic their mother’s behavior and peck at food items.  By the second day, they perform most of what an adult turkey does in their feeding, movement and grooming behavior.  In one week, they dust like their mother and in two weeks they can fly short distances.  By the third week, they can fly up the trees to roost.  If a poult reaches six weeks of age there is a good likelihood that it will reach adulthood. By the fourteenth week, male and female poults can be distinguished. By the fall, the pecking order among the siblings is established and by winter they all have reached their full size, and ready to enter the social organization of the surrounding population. That is also when male offsrpings leave their mother's flock to form their own leaving behind an all female flock.

It is still May and I see single, secretive female turkeys that step out of the meadow and march to the feeding area by the patio and begin to eat.  I suspect these solitary females are expecting mothers looking for a nesting site or are nesting.  Sometimes, I recognize the bird and always I look forward to seeing them with their new born poults.  

Last July, I got to know Thelma, an older and bigger female, who looked strong and walked with grace and confidence. One day, Thelma returned with only one poult who she kept very close to her.

Soon after another mother turkey attracted my attention largely because she just showed up with her four poults. I named her Louise.   She too was a dedicated mother.  But she still lost a poult.  

Once Thelma and Louise met during feeding here, they began to hang out together.  Soon their poults also began to forage together as if they were brothers and sisters! 

Thelma and Louise had their routine. One was to meditate sitting at the corner of the landscape cleaning and fixing their feathers.  Their poults did the same. Photo: Kamran Nayeri

A couple of weeks later, I noticed a smaller, younger mother with four poults. I named her Ginger.  She was far less concerned about her offspring and they tended to stray in different directions before regrouping around their mother.

Ginger ran into Thelma and Louise on one of the days that they all visited here.  They ate seeds together but Thelma and Louise went in one direction and Ginger another.  After a couple of days of meeting each other during feeding occasions, I saw Thelma, Louise, and Ginger foraging together and their poults following them.  Soon, it was Thelma that led the flock and all poults acted as if Thelma was their mother. A new wild turkey flock was formed by three mothers and their offspring. Thelma seemed to command the attention of all in the flock, and without any pecking! 

Ginger when she had four poults.  Photo: Kamran Nayeri

Mother turkeys are brave and dedicated. Wild turkeys fly up tall trees to roost at night for good reason.  A few summer ago, I saw what happened to a large female turkey who became paralyzed due to some disease. She had crouched in the east garden under the Japanese maple tree in the evening unable to move let alone to fly up the trees.  I knew I would find her dead the next morning. Next morning, I found her dead a few steps away from where she had crouched.  A big part of her meaty breast section was missing. I buried her remains under the butterfly bush near where I found her corpse. Mother turkeys who are nesting can be attacked by bobcats, raccoons, or coyotes.  Their eggs can be eaten by crows or raccoons. Poults are easy pick for hawks and owls.

It must be that in the face of all these dangers and because of their social nature, Thelma, Louise, and Ginger pulled their forces together to fend for themselves and their offspring collectively. They opted for communal motherhood. Strength is in unity is not just a union slogan. Communal living is not just a hippie dream. They are necessary for survival of all social animals.

The communal flock prospered as the result.  The poults grew up to become young turkeys. I was able to observe their development until mid-fall when the flock decided to move up the hill where it is warmer.

I will never see Thelma, Louise, or Ginger again. But these turkey mothers taught me a lesson for life.

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