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Turkey trot

A male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
Frank Schulenburg
A male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

Wild turkeys are a study in absurd elegance. Their body plumage resembles the overlapping scales of an armadillo — bronzed, metallic, armor-like. Their long, curved periscopic necks and tiny heads thrust comically back and forth as they trot, as if their necks were directly connected to their legs. All in all, the American Turkey seems an avian frolic, a somewhat ridiculous amalgam of improbable parts, a laughable mismatch of elements — that is, until you feel the subtle aura of menace they carry in their fierce blue-black eyes.

Although I have watched wild turkeys in various venues for years, it wasn’t until yesterday when, looking out my study window, I witnessed what is arguably the most spectacular display in the bird world: the male wild turkey courtship ritual. A little after noon a flock of seven turkeys, six hens and one gobbler (as the males are called) marched through our yard, pecking at weeds and grass seeds like a herd of grazing bison. The gobbler is significantly larger than the hens, sports a 6”-7” long “beard” that dangles from his breast, and has a vibrant, blue-white wattle.

The hens settled down on the forest floor just south of the lawn, lying on the ground as if nesting or laying, while the gobbler strutted and displayed on the lawn at a leisurely, almost motionless pace.

When a male turkey displays, he virtually inflates, swelling to more than double his normal size, like a — well, like the turkey balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. First he spreads his wing feathers down and out, curving them around his torso, Then he erects and spreads his long tail feathers into a vertical semi-circle that resembles a black, lacy, intricately-patterned, oversized, Spanish fan.

This gobbler strutted and swaggered his stuff, but the hens seemed an indifferent audience, ignoring his performance or showing only marginal interest. Now and then one of the hens would wander up onto the lawn, but with no obvious interest in joining the gobbler. Then gradually, oh so gradually that it didn’t even seem like motion, more like watching the minute hand of a clock, the gobbler circled nearer and nearer, like a python slowly slithering its way towards its hypnotized prey. Then, when it seemed he had gotten within striking range, the gobbler moved suddenly towards her, but the hen flapped and moved a few yards away. The gobbler didn’t pursue her but trotted off in a different direction with a Trumpian She-Wasn’t -My-Type-Anyway attitude.

This scenario played itself over and over again with various hens for more than two hours, but I couldn’t see that it ever got the gobbler very far. At one point, after another hen had seemingly spurned his advances, the gobbler, still fully inflated, suddenly engaged in a violent “dance,” shivering and shaking his whole body back and forth for several seconds, as if he was releasing the dynamic tension that had built up during such a lengthy, formal display. It made me wonder if this could be the origin of the “turkey trot,” a popular dance of the early 1900s in which, according to Wikipedia, the participants hopped on one leg, then another, “embellished with scissor-like flicks of the feet and fast trotting actions with abrupt stops.”

After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that humans and wildlife shared dance as a means of sublimating sexual frustration.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.