On spring evenings, neighbors on my Oregon suburban street congregate to watch a flock of feral turkeys fly up to the hundred-foot firs above our houses to roost. Over the past year, some of us have lost our jobs. Some of us have fallen ill, and some are desperately lonely and anxious and scared. For ten minutes at dusk, we step out of our houses and gather at a distance as the turkeys strut, one by one, to the top of our hill. They take a running start, then soar up into the air with a dramatic flapping of wings. Spilling twigs and cones, they alight on branches with much ruffling and bluster, and I and the neighbors applaud.
A feral turkey is enormous. Males grow to four feet and top twenty-four pounds. It’s easy to imagine them—wings outspread and necks craned—as pterodactyls sailing through prehistoric skies. Our houses melt away; our kids’ trampolines, our Subarus, and recycling bins vanish, and we glimpse for just an instant a fully wild world. Each evening after the roosting, the neighbors and I grumble about how the gobbling of the turkeys will wake us at dawn, and then we retreat back into our separate homes and shut the doors or—if it’s Friday—someone brings out a bottle of wine, and someone else brings out a hunk of cheese, and we sit in a circle and commune beneath the creatures Ben Franklin once referred to as “Birds of Courage.”
Unlike my naturalist friends who mutter baleful accusations of ruined gardens and traumatized terriers, I adore the feral turkeys. I grew up in Los Angeles where the only birds I saw were starlings bathing in the gutter after someone washed a car, or the occasional gull that missed its mark and ended up in my scrappy city abutting the airport instead of in chic Manhattan Beach.
The turkeys rock my world. I’ve been frantic this year—worried about my Black biracial teen and racism at her school, about the government, the climate, the hundreds of thousands of people dead of COVID. Feral turkeys slam me back into the moment. They parade past my windows, iridescent green feathers gleaming in the sun and heads festooned with stunning red and blue flesh.
Even the language to describe a turkey’s head stirs the imagination—they have spurs and wattles, caruncles and snoods. Our neighborhood flock includes five toms in mating regalia who trail the drab, but still lovely, hens with their wings outspread in amorous display and their feather tips scraping the asphalt with an eerie hiss that propels me from my desk chair and outside with my camera.
The list of turkey-related sins is long in some people’s minds. Large scaly feet. Decimators of tree seedlings on delicate forest floors. Depositors of great gelatinous gobs of poop on cars and patios. Chasers of toddlers and dogs. In New Jersey, a flock of aggressive turkeys surrounded a postal worker in his truck, trapping him so that he had to call for police assistance. In Morro Bay, California, a gang of twenty-six feral turkeys roamed the streets, pecking people’s cars and harassing the meter reader. One winter morning, my husband and I stood watching them fly down from the trees—then one hit a transformer, which exploded in a blinding white light and knocked out our power for hours.
Yet they’re usually only a minor nuisance in my city. Runners and bicyclists dodge them on trails. Drivers wait entire green lights at busy intersections for a flock to cross, all of us holding up our hands in surrender or taking selfies and laughing at the scene. My own neighborhood flock strolls in front of my car, knowing full well I won’t honk, much less commit avicide.
Many of my friends would like to see them all stuffed and served up on a platter. One person’s muse is another person’s dinner. Vegetarian, I nevertheless approve. The birds, as food, are of use. But the worth of a bird—even a feral bird with gluey poop and a less than friendly disposition—extends beyond the supper table. They add wonder to our days with their gentle, early morning burble in the firs, and an afternoon banshee gobble that provokes laughter as we check our mailboxes and take out our garbage cans.
Beauty lurks in unexpected places, sometimes sharing space with devastation. I’ve been reminded over and over this past year that both can coexist. A deadly pandemic inspires long walks with friends, policy-changing TikTok climate videos, and social justice gatherings gone global on Zoom. And a flock of feral turkeys tempts a group of neighbors out each night to watch together in wonder, and then applaud, their graceless, glorious ascent.