Every time we saw a bald eagle, my Uncle Grunt, the Allentown pig farmer, would remind me that Benjamin Franklin preferred the wild turkey to the eagle. The bald eagle, Franklin wrote privately, was a bird of poor moral character. “I know that, Uncle,” I would say. “Everybody knows that.”
“Personally,” said Grunt, as though he didn’t hear, “I don’t think either of them should have been the national bird.”
“What do you think should have been the national bird?” I asked reluctantly.
“Why, the penguin, of course! You ever see that movie where they all get together and keep the little fellas warm? All in the dark. For something like years.”
“I don’t think it was that long,” I replied.
“Anyway, that takes balls. Doesn’t it?”
I agreed, at least with the part of it that was true.
“But there are no penguins in the United States,” I said.
He pulled over abruptly, stopped on the shoulder. “I knew you were going to say that! Listen: what about the Washington Monument?”
“What about it?”
“It’s an odalisk!”
“Obelisk,” I corrected.
“It’s an obelisk. It’s Egyptian! Egyptian! For Washington! We can have penguins!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Washington’s monument wasn’t really an obelisk, that actually it was more of an obelisk-like structure — of mismatched stone. He had a kind of point.
“It would never fly in Congress,” I said instead.
“Never fly? Penguins? Is that a joke?!” And he pushed the truck roughly into gear, glowering.
Benjamin Franklin also had a point. Not so much about the bald eagle, perhaps. True, they poach dinner from other birds sometimes. Opportunists or bullies? It’s a judgement call. They have other fine qualities. But about turkeys. Franklin was right about them. He extolled their courage: “[they] would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.” He was writing to his daughter Sarah (Sally) at the time, not quite eight years after the Declaration of Independence. His assessment has a light-hearted quality, as though he were teasing a kid, but Sally was a full-grown woman by then, and Franklin’s comment also has a ring of authenticity, as though he himself had stepped into the yard at the wrong time, agitating the gobblers with his scarlet cravat.
We had a visit from a group of wild turkeys on the 27th of September. They can sometimes be seen across the ravine, moving down the hill from Frances’s place, but these crossed over, along the road, then past the sumac thicket by the driveway, heading south. Two things strike you about them. They’re big — up to thirty pounds or so, though the weight itself doesn’t do justice to their full-feathered size — and they cover ground fast.
Ours are Merriam’s turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo merriami, named after the head honcho of the nation’s Biology Survey). Merriam’s are distinguished by white tips on the tail and rump feathers — in fact, a good splash of white all around, instead of the tan coloring of the Rio Grande variety. Franklin’s comments came to mind because these birds, who normally congregate up around the Westridge Trail in Lory State Park, exemplify the old notion that the better part of valor is discretion (in the which better part I have saved my life, according to Falstaff).
Hunting is permitted for wild turkeys in Lory during the spring session, in April and May, on Mondays and Tuesdays — a total of twelve days or so in the two months. Rifles and handguns are prohibited, but shotguns, bows, and crossbows are legal, and the toms and gobblers up on the ridge have no particular preference when it comes to how they’re dispatched. It all seems like a bad idea, and so during those months it’s not unusual for them to skirt Soldier Canyon and hang with us on the hill until the excitement is over. That is also true of the fall hunting season, and it was apparently no coincidence that the late September visit of our Merriam’s happened smack dab in the month when wild turkeys are in the crosshairs this side of I-25.
When things settle down, they’ll be back in the ponderosa roosts of the park, trading war stories, getting a beard trim, and generally bad-mouthing penguins and eagles.