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May, 2009

Not a Happy Ending

by Valerie

One morning this spring, while traipsing through an overgrown field, I chanced upon a clutch of eggs under a small, shrubby juniper tree. From the size and number, it was obvious that they were turkey eggs. There was nothing much of a nest, just a flattened area of grass. I'd not seen the mother bird as I was approaching, so she must have been off feeding at that time. I thought of the possibility that the eggs were abandoned, but they looked too well-kept for that. I quickly took a couple of pictures and moved on, carefully noting landmarks so that I could remember exactly where the nest was, as there were numerous similar junipers near the edge of the field, about 10 feet from a barbed wire fence. I knew that in a week's time it would be easy to forget the location and end up blundering upon the nest before seeing just where it was.

The next week, I went to investigate the eggs again. From a good distance, I made sure that I was looking in the right place and slowly approached. Something was different under the shrub. Once I was within 50 feet or so, I could tell that the mother bird was on the nest. She was facing away from me, but obviously knew I was there and was just hunkering down. Every so often I could see the wind blow her back feathers up a little. Her dull metallic plumage glistened slightly in the early morning sun. I decided not to try to get close enough for a photo, as the bird might either get scared off or perhaps attack. I'd recently sprained my ankle and was in no shape to outrun an angry mama turkey, so I slowly retreated.

My approach to the nest on the following week was more confident as I was able to easily remember its exact location. From some distance I could tell the bird was not present so I walked right up to it. I fully expected to find that the eggs had hatched and that the babies were now off foraging with their mother. However, the nest was completely empty and appeared to have been dug out a little. There were a couple of back feathers from the mother bird. The eggs were all located between 5 and 10 feet from the nest, in several directions. They didn't look like they had hatched in the normal way. The crushed shells and strewn remains seemed to point to a predator attack. I looked for clues that the eggs might have hatched and then some scavenger had come along and tried to find nourishment in the empty shells, but all signs pointed to a more violent episode. There is at least one fox den on the property, and coyotes make regular forays through. While a turkey might fend off a raccoon, or even a small gray fox, it wouldn't stand a chance against a coyote.

The farm owner was distressed to learn of the situation, as she had been hoping that the turkeys were breeding successfully in the area. However, she had just seen a female bird acting strangely the previous day. It was standing around nearby but was not accompanied by chicks. Although the turkeys in the area are rather accustomed to people, they do not come very near and usually move off as they are feeding when we drive up along the road. As I was leaving the farm, I saw a female turkey right by the driveway; she just stood there and watched as I passed slowly by.

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