City Birds

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The turkeys are out in Cambridge. I passed one this morning on my way to church: a large male in full feather, his tail fanned out in picturesque Thanksgiving-style, his wattle bright blue and prominent, and a tuft of feathers erect on his chest—signifying, I imagine, his virility; though not being a turkey myself his charms were largely lost on me. He’d noticed his reflection in a store window and stood transfixed before it, admiring his features with a much keener eye than any human amateur. It’s an expression of vanity that we do not usually see in public, at least not so overtly. That said, humans often put this store window to the same use: but in our species the glances are furtive, the admiration surreptitious, and the stride unbroken as we pass by.

Another woman paused beside me and together we watched him preen. And this, too, is another instance of things that are possible with animals but not with humans; for we could never stare at another person the way that we stared at this creature: observing intently, approaching slowly, photographing boldly.

Then again, if I passed a man puffing his chest and gazing approvingly at his reflection in a storefront, perhaps I would feel some license to gawk. But I would cross to the other side of the street first.

 

Boston is famous for “Make Way for Ducklings,” Robert McCloskey’s picture book about a Mallard family that stops traffic by the Boston Common and makes a home in the Public Gardens. They’re immortalized there with a series of bronze statues, Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings: a favorite spot for children, who sit on the ducklings’ backs as their parents snap photographs. In Cambridge, though, we often find ourselves participants in the far-less-charming “Make Way for Turkeys.” In the height of the spring mating season they have been known to stop traffic at rush hour, parading across Massachusetts Avenue. The Cambridge turkeys have no need of McCloskey’s kind policeman to escort them, eschewing both help and official sanction. They simply wander into the street, with a boldness matched only by the collegiate pedestrians; and the cars come to a halt.

But theirs is not the wholesome story of a single mother caring for her eight children: no, this is the bawdier tale of a male turkey following a pack of eight hens, none of whom seem interested. Puffing his feathers to prominent display, he advances first toward one side of the group, then the other: the closest females trot faster until they fall out of range, and he turns his attention to the nearer prospects. Their lopsided advance through the city, the mile-long march of male pursuit and female evasion tactics, seems an apt allegory for our newspaper headlines; but it is (appropriately) not the stuff of storybooks.

 

I have a friend who has named one of the turkeys who lives near us—“Bridget,” he calls her. We see her regularly on Hancock Street pacing under a maple tree. “Oh, there’s Bridget,” one of us will say; and we’ll stop for a moment and watch the way her claws clack against the sidewalk.

Of course, we do not know for sure which turkey is Bridget. She has no distinguishing features, as far as we can tell; and thus it seems likely that many turkeys have played the role of Bridget over the years. But I don’t suppose this matters much. We like Bridget because she has her own life. She has no responsibility to us—no duty to show affection, no obligation to frequent Hancock Street at all. We recognize this, and make no demands of her. We like her wildness. We do not expect her to be the same turkey every time.

 

Cambridge has other wildlife, too: Canada geese, in particular, swarm the riverfront; their droppings dot the parks on Memorial Drive. But Cambridge is not their natural habitat, as it is for our turkey neighbors. They are just passing through.

At least, they are supposed to pass through. But as temperatures rise in North America, the geese have begun to return earlier in the spring and leave later in the fall; and some have taken up full-time residency. My first spring in Cambridge, I was delighted to see fluffy goslings waddling beside me on the bike path. When a woman passed me on the path, I pointed out the new hatchlings, hoping for the kind of camaraderie I’d seen the turkeys inspire. But she glowered. “They’re pests,” she said. The MassWildlife website breezily acknowledges this perspective: “In fact, in some areas, people feel there are too many geese!” In Cambridge, the sentiment is fairly universal: the geese have overstayed their welcome.

The turkeys, by contrast, lived in Cambridge long before the geese ever spent a winter here. Long before my ancestors did, either, when you come down to it. The turkeys paced under maple trees and pursued flocks of hens before Mass Ave ever existed, before anyone ever thought to build a storefront where we could admire our reflections.

As much as I like to think of the turkeys as my neighbors, then—my fellow creatures of Hancock Street—we are not quite the peers I imagine us to be. The truth is this: I have much more in common with the pests by the Charles than I do with Bridget. I am influencing the landscape in ways not altogether beneficial; I am producing waste that the ecosystem was never prepared to withstand. And while wild turkeys have lived here for centuries, I am the legacy of colonizers for whom “overstaying their welcome” would be a grotesquely sanitized version of the story.

I run by the river and give a furtive glance at its mirrored surface. I glimpse something in the brackish water: the reflection of a Canada goose.

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Image: “ Wild Turkey A 5-12 1 ” by by Paul Sullivan , licensed under CC 2.0

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