Wild turkeys in the backyard again, this time five large gobblers. Normally the birds pick their way along, grabbing a seed or an insect that catches their sharp eyes. This time the smallest tom was either feeling his oats, or he was tired of being picked on by the larger birds. Turkeys always have a pecking order and this guy was clearly riding the bottom rung of the turkey ladder. It began with him pushing one of the larger birds aside, using a heavy wing for leverage. When the bigger bird pushed back, the upstart jumped into the air, startled by the response. But rather than duck his head and go back to being low tom on the totem pole, the smaller bird continued to jump in the air, kicking his legs about while shaking his head and wings. This went on for about 20 seconds, enough to make me wonder if we had a new strain of kangaroo turkeys, but finally the hissy fit was over and things settled back down.
The weathered saying that “life is full of surprises” is undeniably true. Just when things are going smoothly and we are arrogant enough to think we have everything in order, Lady Luck throws a looping curve ball. These sudden events can be painful when they involve a threat to our health and well-being, or they can tickle our funny bones when we least expect a good belly laugh. There is no doubt that television networks and social media have plenty of fodder to keep us tuning in to Funniest Home Videos, Instagram, and YouTube. While you might enjoy watching puppies bounce off a door, or kids fly off their bikes while imitating Evil Knievel, I get a kick out of unusual wildlife encounters.
A few years back there was a funny backyard video circulating from Colorado, starring a sizable black bear who was clearly several sheets to the wind. The big fellow had been feasting on apples that had been laying around long enough to ferment, producing natural hard cider. This bear was so plastered that he could barely stand up before rolling onto his side. No doubt he had a wicked hangover the next day, with no aspirin in sight. A similar video showed a skunk tumbling around on a lawn with an aluminum can stuck on his head. I can just imagine how much fun it was to catch that striped beauty and to remove that can.
Birds like to get into the action sometimes. This spring a particularly love-sick turkey developed a real attitude for his reflection in my chrome truck bumper. The darned fool would spend 30 minutes pecking at the bumper in hopes of defeating his “challenger.” I had to repeatedly chase the turkey away but I imagine his old head was ringing for a while after the battles. When I was a young boy, walking through the hayfield behind my house, our old beagle surprised a big rooster pheasant. In those days, the cocks made quiet a racket when flushed but this bird quieted really fast. After just a couple wingbeats the pheasant ran smack into a tree trunk and broke his neck!
Those of us who feed the birds are regularly treated to the antics of squirrels and chipmunks. Those furry fellows just cannot resist the temptation to climb over any obstacle in hopes of snaring food from the feeders. I have watched gray squirrels make repeated attempts to outwit my defenses, doing their best to hang on while stretched out to the max, before falling to the ground. George Smith, former Outdoors Editor of the Bangor newspaper wrote in my first book about falling asleep against a big tree, then being rudely awakened by a weasel running up his leg all the way to George’s chest. Oh boy!
On the small end of things, insects are also capable of surprising us. While roofing our cabin, my pal Rick was wearing a bright red hat to ward off the blistering August sun. A monarch butterfly came along and landed on Rick’s hat. I have no idea what attracted the butterfly to Rick, who certainly did not smell like a milkweed flower, but the beautiful creature stayed atop Rick’s head for a couple hours that day. On the big end of things, I recall a news report from the city of Syracuse many years ago. It seems a fully grown bull moose had wandered into the suburbs, causing quite a hubbub as he crossed busy roads and strolled down sidewalks. He managed to shatter a picture window as he entered a store, maybe looking for his long-lost love (sadly the moose had to be euthanized and turned out to have brain worms).
It has been my experience that when you quietly insert yourself into the natural world and allow things to unfold around you, wonderful things can happen. While walking in the forest one autumn day in my teens, I sat down by a tree to rest. A few minutes later I noticed a small doe meandering through the trees in my direction. I froze in place and avoided direct eye contact with her, often taken as a sign of aggression in the animal kingdom. The wind was in my favor, and because I did not move, the deer walked right up to me showing no fear. She came close enough to put her nose to my boot, and then slowly moved down the trail, leaving my heart pounding with excitement.
One more story in closing, this one also involving Rick (we have been great pals for 65 years so there are quite a few scrapes in our history!). Rick and Fran stopped by our cabin one afternoon to check on things and to enjoy the view in the autumn forest. To their surprise the floor was covered in broken glass. Thinking that a vandal had caused the damage, they looked around for a rock. Instead, they found a ruffed grouse lying on the opposite side of the cabin from the broken window, the body still warm to the touch. The bird had flown down through my small orchard at such a rate that his momentum shattered the window and then carried on another 20 feet. Someday I might forgive my pal for having a taxidermist mount the bird for Rick’s office, and failing to keep the delicious meat for my freezer. On top of that, I had to pay for the broken window! At least Rick had the good grace to sweep up the glass and repair the window for me.
I suspect all of you kind readers could come up with interesting wildlife encounters of your own, some funny, some exciting and some sad. If you care to share them with me, I will pass the best ones along in a future issue. Thanks for reading!