A Teaching Moment

This subject’s been sitting handy on my desk for three weeks now, printed and pushed aside at least twice to allow for bear banter that came to me the same way most things seem to come: by email, phone or personal conversation. So, having now put the bear discussion to rest for a while, let’s take a few steps back to that lingering subject, the genesis of which was mention right here in this space of a hen turkey my spry, 10-year-old springer spaniel bitch, Lily, flushed from a tall, dense, fragrant hayfield awaiting its first cut a month back.

After that flush occurred toward the end of our daily ramble through upper fields, Sunken Meadow and back up, I made brief mention of my fear that a nest of little hatchlings could have been nearby, and that I wanted to avoid either or both of my two dogs discovering them unable to fly and quite vulnerable, even to soft-mouthed gun dogs more apt to pick up and retrieve them unharmed than crunch and kill. Still, I always try to play it safe.

Also included in that narrative was speculation that, given what I have seen most years when my dogs find young broods in our travels, poults seem to gain flight and the ability to follow their mother onto a tree limb out of harm’s way quite quickly, maybe even within a week of hatching. I didn’t Google “immature turkey flight” or anything of the sort before putting that in print, just took an educated guess based upon what I had seen with my own eyes many times in the summer — a flock of winged footballs fleeing with their mother to lofty tree limbs.

I knew I should have double-checked when an old South Deerfield pal, who makes a habit of observing and even feeding wildlife around his palatial forested home, questioned my flight assessment, contending that poults are grounded for weeks, not days. I didn’t doubt him but wanted to put the issue to rest. No, no, no, I didn’t Google it. Didn’t have to. I knew exactly who to query: my retired UMass professor brother-in-law living an idyllic retirement on his secluded Maine gentleman’s farm. I don’t believe there is anyone who knows birds better than Buzz, a cerebral man pushing 70 with a lifelong study of birds in his thorough, professorial ways. Recently, his ornithological fascination has been especially focused on wild turkeys, populations of which began populating his tidy upland farm perhaps 20 years ago and have taken off like gangbusters on terrain he manicures as a wildlife sanctuary.

So, without further ado, take it straight from Buzz the teacher, who spared no words in his email response to me, written in English, one of at least three languages he is fluent in. Here it is in its entirety, with a few minor editorial changes and one little typo repair:

“I have read that poults can fly enough to reach low limbs by 10 days of age. I have watched them for years now and note that from three days old they are constantly trying to use their wings — almost always fluttering them as they rush to stay up with the hen. By day eight or so, they actually jump, flap their little wings and remain airborne for three or four feet as they follow her.

“Once they are able to get to low limbs (10 days or so) three feet or so off the ground, they do what is called “limbing” — an activity in which they flutter/jump from limb to limb, acquiring skill, strength, and dexterity all the while. This goes on for several months as they become true experts in navigating tree limbs and moving about in trees — a skill needed to avoid danger, find a good perch or navigate their way out of trees.

“When very young, poults will simply hide, remaining motionless if danger approaches. This behavior goes on from day one to roughly day 10 or 15, I would venture. On more than one occasion I have come upon a hen that pops up out of tall grass, putts repeatedly, and walks about putting lightly — and on such occasions I have seen a poult or two (some with decent wing feathers) hunkered down motionless in the deep grass. I have generally left immediately, allowing the hen to collect her brood and move away.

“At some point around day 10 to 15, poults will flush with the hen, who may just run or fly a short distance. At this age, they cannot fly too far, perhaps 30 yards or so before a disorderly landing in tall hay. I consider this the poults’ most vulnerable time, and the hen gets very upset upon seeing them flush. Given age and lack of experience, it can be a challenge for the young to regroup with the hen. The tall grass could be an impediment.

“At about 21 days, the young can fly quite well and the hen knows this — thus she will often flush to a nearby tree, and the poults will do likewise. I would venture that it is birds of 21 days of age or more that you are thinking of when you call them footballs. I say 21 days because they are all decent fliers by this point — and they have really developed their regrouping skills. They simply become more proficient with each passing day. Leigh and I do try to avoid these stressful encounters by noting where turkeys happen to be when we are leaving for a walk, and by leaving the area immediately if we happen to run into a family.

“Several years ago we encountered a hen and five poults for several consecutive days. The hen grew increasingly alarmed over time and shortly thereafter moved her brood elsewhere. I theorized that she left my fields because of these encounters. I would venture that some hens are more tolerant of human contact than others. That said, I have since noted that a number of hens and young on my place move away from my fields for several weeks once the young are about four weeks old. I think that the hen wants to expose them to new territory, and the young are quite skilled and alert — able to handle various challenges that come with exploring new territory. This move may also be due to better feeding conditions in other areas birds have not foraged. It could also be because, by four weeks old, the young need fewer insects that abound in fields and are crucial to very young poults’ diet. It could also be because instinct tells the hen that the young need time in the deep, open woods. Though uncertain of the cause, I have noted this phenomenon for several years.

“In any event, these same groups often resurface on my place several weeks later, then appear and disappear throughout the rest of the summer and fall. The young have so much to learn — what to eat, their range, what to avoid and how to avoid it. No wonder the efforts to restore turkeys with farm-raised birds failed. All they knew was the inside of their pens and where the feeder was located!

“I do hope these unscientific observations are of some help. It is a complex puzzle. The more information one has, the better.”

So there you have it — from a man who knows yet likely never took wildlife biology in a college degree plan focused on languages and linguistics. So, let me pose this question: Is he professional or amateur?

In my judgment, he could hold his own with any card-carrying ornithologist. Not only that but, although retired on a peaceful slice of Nirvava, isn’t it blatantly obvious how much he still loves to teach?


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