In the bird care room at WildCare, you don’t ever have to wait long these days to hear a timer go off. Baby birds are set on 30- to 45- minute, or 1-hour feeding intervals from dawn to dusk, 24/7, and I’m always certain to do at least a quick walk through the bird room, if not a feeding or two, on my Wednesday volunteer shift.
I’m a sucker for those gaping, yellow mouths, and the insistent peeping that says, “Hey, it’s me…over here! Hurry up!” This past Wednesday, I peeked into a small pet carrier to find one of WildcCare’s less common avian orphans: a small wild turkey. I don’t know what came over me, but less than a minute later, I was tracking down our animal technician, Amelia, to see if I could beg her into letting me take the lonely little guy/girl home. A few phone calls to the Department of Natural Resources later, and I had myself a turkey.
I changed names on the little bird three times before I got home, by which time I had pretty much settled on “Wiley,” since that is what these fragile birds are supposed to be. I figured that he (let’s just call him “he” for now, unless I discover differently down the road) could use the help of a strong name. Wild turkeys often don’t do well in rehab.
Wiley was off to a tough start, having been brought to his finders by their very proud cat. Some medication and a few mealworms later, Wiley was on his way home with me, while I sorted out on the ride home what in the world I was going to do with him.
I decided on the greenhouse, which only has three plants growing in it right now. It is a sturdy room, walled with sheets of opaque fiberglass. I was so tempted to put him with the chickens, but turkeys can catch deadly diseases from chickens, so he was not to meet Maybell and her brood. The greenhouse was a fine turkey safe-haven, I figured.
Quickly, I cleared out the gardening tools, covered part of the floor with pine shavings, set up a watering jar, a dish of turkey starter, a bowl of mealworms, and scattered small bunches of food around the plants, in case Wiley was into foraging. In the far corner of the greenhouse, I constructed a leafy veil of tree branches for a hideout. Then I toted his pet carrier and my computer to the greenhouse, sat on a pillow, and determined to learn at least a beginner’s vocabulary of Turkey Talk.
Wiley was terrified when I put my hands around him, terrified when I set him down, and terrified of his new digs. He ran shrieking to the leaf cave, and then ran out in a panic a moment later peeping and pecking piteously along the corrugated fiberglass wall that kept him from the great beyond.
I felt awful seeing him like that. What kind of a turkey mother was I? Such a lovely bundle of brown and golden fluff with butterfly-patterned wings should not have to be so miserable, even for an instant. He ran so fast, I could only see him in a blur—a yellowish brownish blur streaking in and out of the leaf corner.
Sometimes, I’m not as dense as I generally believe myself to be. I heard Wiley. I “heard” him in pictures. What came to my mind’s eye was a vision of grasses and weeds and small twigs. The leaf hideout was too big, too vacant, like an empty ballroom to a lost child.
I ran out of the greenhouse and started picking. Fortunately, weeds and grasses abound in our yard. In fact, that pretty much IS our yard. When I got back with my tumble of eco-camouflage, Wiley was gone. I’m not kidding. He was just plain gone, and the greenhouse was dead silent.
Frantically, I searched the greenhouse from top to bottom. I looked under the plants, behind the leaf hide, under a small wooden threshold. I looked up, where he couldn’t possibly be, and under the plants and threshold, where he also could not possibly be, because I had just looked there thirty seconds ago.
Then I spied the hole. It was a small one, the only one in 45 square feet of greenhouse, just a crack, really, where two pieces of supporting wood had not quite joined. And I felt my lungs rise up in my throat and my gut tangle like a dreadlock. I recalled in horror how fast that little bird could run—like a Nascar—and my brain imploded as I realized that he could be anywhere within a quarter-mile radius of that greenhouse.
On hands and knees, I crawled under porch of Carter’s shop, moving hornets and spider webs aside with my hands, and grinding my bare kneecaps on gravel. I crawled to the frog bathtub and peeked beneath, scaring out a convention of harvestmen, but no turkey. I searched the chicken yard, the front yard, the garage, and fingered my way through an acre’s worth of tall weeds and grasses.
I had read that wild turkeys will crouch and go silent when in danger, and that the chicks (called “poults,” but I like the word “chicks” better) are cunning and fast. And I am neither cunning nor fast. Wiley had outsmarted me. I started rehearsing my speech to Amelia about how and why I’d managed to lose this turkey not ten minutes from the time I got him home. At WildCare, we call such events “self-release,” but such a benign term did not fit my mood at all. I crawled back onto the deck, and found Carter busy in his shop. “Just please shoot me,” I told him. “I’m too dumb to live.”
Carter laughed, “Got away, eh?”
For the next hour, I continued the hunt. Finally, collapsing on my pillow in the greenhouse for a needed break, I let my eyes wander forlornly around the greenhouse—my supposed Turkey Taj Mahal. And there he was. There he was, sitting pretty as you please, nestled in a cup-like dip by the edge of the greenhouse door.
“OhthankyouGodohthankyouGod” I sputtered, quickly jamming my foot against the crack he had never used. He sat there so serenely, tiling his pretty head up to look at the shadows dancing against the greenhouse wall. He carefully pecked at one of them. I sat there enchanted with his wild beauty, which I could see now that he wasn’t running and screaming. He cocked his head like puppy will sometimes, and I watched him begin preening his delicate little wing feathers—a good sign meaning a creature is calm enough to tidy up.
Making as little sound as possible, I patched the hole, then placed my tumble of weeds and grass behind the leaf curtain, and left, giving my little trauma victim some much needed peace and quiet. He could not, would not die, I told myself. I made a vow to learn wild turkey language fast enough to hear his needs.
When I came back an hour later, the mealworms were gone, and Wiley was no longer in his dirt nest. Looking carefully, I saw the shimmer of his wing feathers there in the grass pile. After dark, I placed a heating pad on low over this grass nest. As I left the greenhouse for the night, I heard in my mind, “You can’t expect him to survive all by himself, can you? These are social birds. You need to get him a buddy.” I went into the house and told Carter that Wiley told me he needed a bird buddy. Carter smiled. I never know if he believes me, or humors me. Either is fine. Stay tuned for further turkey talk!