A message from the north Asheville turkeys

I hadn’t seen them since early March, when they paraded up our hill, single file, into my neighbors’ yard. The sun was disappearing below the horizon, and a wintry wind was blowing from the creek. A lone passing car briefly breached the enveloping silence.

I remember the first time I heard that peculiar rushing just over my head as the turkeys launched themselves into the trees beside our house. I felt small beneath the sound of their big, heavy wings — too close to my head; too close to my house. Yet they headed not for me or the house but for the row of pines lining our driveway, where they roosted until the first light of dawn. And each night at dusk, for nearly three months, about two dozen wild turkeys came to spend the night.

The pines had to adjust! All that cumulative turkey weight produced 20 wheelbarrow loads of broken pine. Still, with each load I gathered, I was thankful for the pines, the turkeys and all they were teaching me. These turkeys are one of the few remaining wild species that is native to North America — and the fossil record shows that they’ve been here for more than 11 million years!

As near as I can tell, though, wild turkeys first showed up in this neighborhood about four years ago — three males and nine hens who would scatter when you approached. Now, some of us figure there are close to 100 of them, counting this spring’s crop of babies. And for four years, turkeys have been stopping traffic in North Asheville. I’ve seen tourists wide-eyed and speechless upon sighting them at the Grove Park Inn. I’ve seen lines of early morning commuters halted by turkeys parading across the road.

If you can imagine thinking like a turkey, you’ll understand why this neighborhood is a great place to live (location, location, location!). The city’s leash law helps keep dogs at bay. Yards and gardens provide a steady supply of acorns, grubs, seeds, berries and insects, plus big trees for nightly roosting. There are hills and rooftops to assist the nightly takeoff. And there are countless little streams that can be followed all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Still, life in North Asheville is not without its hazards. A couple of years ago (Dec. 11, 2002), the Asheville Citizen-Times reported that a man had been arrested for shooting a turkey! And even apart from those shotgun-toting bipeds, there are predators here: Owls, hawks, crows, raccoons, snakes and house cats prey on the babies (which are known as poults). Ironically, however, life is “safer” for adult turkeys, whose predators — foxes, coyotes and bobcats — don’t want to be so close to humans.

When our dump trucks and bulldozers and development destroy their neighborhood, most wild things retreat into the deep woods — assuming they can find them — or else they die. And as more and more of us fill up the earth and use it for our human purposes, huge numbers of wild plant and animal species are dying. Scientists say we’re in the midst of an irreversible mass extinction.

Wild turkeys, however, are an “edge species” — one of a handful of species that can survive in close proximity to humans, at the edge of the wild. Here they can proliferate with no predators to keep their numbers in check — just like kudzu and starlings! No doubt about it, our local turkey band is expanding. And one of these days there’ll be an incident of some sort, and someone will start fussing about “too many turkeys,” demanding that something be done about it.

Nonetheless, I’m hopeful. Of course, I’ve heard neighbors “talking turkey” at parties: “Were they fighting in your yard, or was it just a noisy gathering?” “Did a hawk get those babies?” “Is that man up the street feeding them?” But I’m also hearing more talk about alternatives to chemical fertilizers, ways to move a compost pile, and the advantages of walking to our local tailgate market. These are signs of a growing awareness of the consequences of our collective behavior.

And perhaps these wild turkeys are themselves a gift — yet another of nature’s freely offered wake-up calls. In a similar way, our polluted air, our logged watersheds, our unchecked “development” of unzoned land all underscore what happens when we don’t pay attention and don’t take responsibility. Just as an exploding turkey population has consequences, so too are there consequences to our mindless degradation of what sustains all life.

Meanwhile, here in this neighborhood, the wild turkeys are busy doing what they do. Last night, a hen brought four poults to the pines for flying lessons — in the rain! It proved to be a noisy hour, what with all the calling back and forth from yard to branches. And the other night, for the first time since March, a couple of gobblers flew up into the trees at dusk, making their familiar running commentary as the daylight faded.

Sitting inside, enjoying dinner from the garden, I remembered that in some Native American traditions, turkeys are called “earth eagles” — the bringers of earth wisdom — and there’s no question that we need it!

[Mary Miller Stair is an artist whose presentations of music and story are rooted in deep ecology. She has lived in north Asheville for 20 years, and her ancestors were among the original settlers of Haywood County.]

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