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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Turkey Trot

Air Date: Week of April 12, 2002

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Spring has arrived, and with it the impulse to get outside, to move and, to mate. Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg has been watching the turkeys in his backyard begin their dance of desire.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And coming up, author William Fiennes confronts the urge to wander, and the urge to get back home. But first, Spring Fever may be a human condition, but we're not the only creatures of passion as the days get longer and warmer. Verlyn Klinkenborg has been observing another species perform its vernal ritual.

KLINKENBORG: A couple of months ago, I began getting up at four in the morning. I had been reading a lot of William Cobbett, a reformer who lived and wrote in England in the early 19th century. Cobbett believed an hour in the morning was worth two in the afternoon. And his idea of morning began at four.

I don't usually imitate the lives of the writers I read. Who would want to? But for Cobbett, in this case, I was willing to make an exception. Once when he was living in America, he met a driver who was surprised at how much Cobbett got done during the day. A born explainer, Cobbett said, "I rise early, go to be early, eat sparingly, never drink anything stronger than small beer, shave once a day, and wash my hands and face clean three times a day, at the very least." The driver said, "That was too much to think of doing."

The dogs are thrilled to get up at four because it means they run around outside for a few minutes, have their breakfast, and be back in bed by 4:15. For a few weeks, in mid-winter, I had the early morning darkness all to myself. The February sun seemed as lazy as that American driver. But week by week, the darkness has eroded, crumbling sooner and sooner every morning.

And when dawn comes, the turkeys come with it. They slip out of the woods in the middle pasture, a flock of twenty-some birds, almost every morning. Some days, they scratch their way slowly downhill, stopping here and there to wipe their feet the way the chickens do. Other days, the flock pours down the hillside, making their way to the spot where we spread cracked corn for them.

In the early morning dusk, they look like low, hunched shadows. But as the light grows stronger, it catches the copper, and bronze and brass of their feathering. They move more sinuously than I had ever imagined, their heads no larger than afterthoughts. While winter lingered, it was hard to say just who was who in the flock. Spring settled that.

I looked out in the pasture last Sunday morning and saw a tom turkey bestriding a hen, fully inflated by a sense of self and genetic duty. He let himself down until he looked no different from the rest of his harem, who are slender birds. Then he blew himself up again. His body swelled and turned black before my eyes. He became globular. He turned blue and white in the face, and red in the waddles. His wings fell to his side, and his primary feathers reached out to the ground. His tail fanned and pivoted side to side as he shuffled forward like a dancer in the Mikado. This was spring in all its glory, all its urgency.

Then he trailed his way uphill toward the other male, and they dueled with each other as though they were dueling with a mirror. The hens kept after the cracked corn, and never once looked up.

[MUSIC: Bill Monroe & Doc Watson, "Turkey in the Straw (banjo)"]

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for The New York Times.

[MUSIC OUT]

 

 

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