Look like a Wild Turkey

I want to look like a turkey. Don’t misread me. I want to look like one, not look like a turkey. The eyesight of wild turkeys is superior to every other inhabitant of eastern forests with the exception of raptors and vultures, and probably three times as acute as a human hunter with 20/20 vision.

Little details that don’t get our attention matter to turkeys. They notice a trivial silhouette that might betray the ears of a lurking coyote, or the metallic ring pointing out of shrubbery 100 yards away that could be a shotgun barrel. They might even notice an unfamiliar blue flash on a hunter’s camouflaged jacket who didn’t realize that detergent containing optical brighteners leaves fluorescent traces that are noticed by quarry with sharp eyes at the blue end of the spectrum.

Where Wild Turkeys safely graze
Where Wild Turkeys safely graze

But when I look peep through a window to watch a gang of turkeys feeding at our sanctuary area it’s not only their visual supremacy I admire but how acutely they take in their surroundings, as of course they must. If we were a prey species we would not last long in the woods, having lost or forgotten the craft of “looking out.” When I saunter along a trail I have less than half a mind on my surroundings, being either engaged in conversation with another hiker or lost in private thoughts. If this is true of a naturalist I guess it must be general. What do I miss on a hike—a rare bird or butterfly, a glistening stone or weird mushroom, a trail of beaten grass or an intriguing dollop of scat? How much richer the experience if I looked harder, saw more, mentally engaged my surroundings; how many more critters and stories could I bring home if I saw the signs? My eyes focus on the next footfalls and anything beyond a few yards is a forgotten blur. I might notice more if I were a blind man accustomed to using sharp ears.


This lack of attention is even more wretched in town than in the woods. Some writers break from their desk to have a smoke: I go out for a walk to mentally work through a tricky paragraph or overcome writer’s block. Without a dog guiding me on a leash I might bump into a post from somnolently gazing at my feet pacing the sidewalk.  There is an element of courtesy in this dream-walking because I can’t be accused of looking nosily in the windows of houses or at people on their porches. But I wonder how much interesting stuff I miss by not looking out, stuff that might feed a writer’s fancy, and there was never a better opportunity for spying on eccentricity than when I walked to work along First Avenue in NYC where so many strange birds make their nest.

This musing threw me back to memories of when I was a Boy Scout. The scouting motto is Be Prepared, but there is another—Look Wide. Even after all these years it is hard to keep a lookout, requiring a disciplined act of concentration like keeping a stiff back instead of slouching like many other tall people.

The founder of the scouting movement Lord Robert Baden-Powell wrote: “Look wide, and even when you think you are looking wide—look wider still.” Our favorite scout activity was the Wide Game in which half the troop was sent into the woods as hiders while the rest waited fifteen minutes to go after them as seekers. It honed our powers of observation, skills that Baden-Powell brought home as a colonial army officer from the Matabele and Boer Wars.  They are not so much valued today except by hunters and search-and-rescue squads, and society might be approaching a nadir as we focus on smartphones and tablets, seldom casting aside to everyone and everything around. We look narrow.

I suspect professional artists look differently. I never looked as carefully at objects than when I dabbled in painting. In a Norwegian study tiny cameras were used to track eye movements in trained artists to compare with a group of non-artists (Perception 2007; 36:91-100). They were asked to look at a scene or a picture and then look again more intently to remember it. The non-artists quickly focused on the chief features—a house, a person, an animal—and their attention didn’t wander far for long. The eyes of artists, however, tracked back and forth, up and down, scanning the entire field and following the shapes, forms, and colors. Their look was not strongly focused on the main subject, and they remembered details better. They look wide.

We expect artists to be better observers of nature, but I was surprised when I read that minor visual disabilities are more common among art students. Stranger still, Rembrandt’s self-portraits seem to depict a man with cross eyes (strabismus), which would have impaired his depth perception. Perhaps I now understand why I was taught in art classes to close one eye when drafting a picture. It helps pay attention to the details of the subject as well as frame a picture with two-dimensions from three.

That brings me round to wild turkeys. They are strabismotic because their eyes are on the sides of their head, and they gain a penetrating impression of their surroundings by constantly rotating their heads through 360 degrees. Turkeys teach me to look, but I stop at rubbernecking.

Next Post: Last of the Autumn Leaves

Thanks given for Wild Turkey

Christmas has the sound of carols while July Fourth the sight of fireworks, but only one American holiday has an aroma. A breeze of savory turkey from the kitchen is the essence of Thanksgiving. How it came to be associated is something of a mystery, but it’s a nice compensation for losing the vote to bald eagles when America chose its national bird.

wild turkeyWe can’t be sure if they were on the menu at the very first Thanksgiving in the 1600s. Even the date and place of that celebration is contested. According to a tale often told, Thanksgiving began when persecuted Puritans arriving in God’s land from England celebrated their first harvest with new American Indian friends in Massachusetts. It is a story that nicely chimes with the proud national history we like to tell children.

But some twenty miles up the James River in Virginia, at the Berkeley Plantation (formerly Berkeley Hundred), a plaque commemorates a thanksgiving service in December 1619, a full year before the first Pilgrim Father stepped off the Mayflower.

Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.

The Berkeley bunch of rugged pioneers was more in tune with profit than piety, and they even had an entrepreneurial clergyman. According to legend, their Episcopal priest distilled the first bourbon whiskey from Indian corn in 1621—though the claim attracts a spirited rebuff from patriotic Kentuckians. But there can be no doubt that the colonists needed southern comfort, because the following year they were raided by Indians and the survivors had to be evacuated to the fort at Jamestown. Thanksgiving was suspended at Berkeley for some years, leaving the northern upstarts with the reputation of an honored meal in perpetuity.

The colonists would say that Thanksgiving turkeys today are a pale, vast, and grotesque transmogrification of their wild relatives that fatten naturally on mast in the fall woods. Wild turkey was daily fare for them, much as rabbit was for their relatives in England. I imagine children complaining when mothers served it for the umpteenth time. It requires rarity and high market price for us to value delicacies. Over-hunting brought a turnabout, although in the past century wild turkeys have become common again through conservation efforts and reintroduction to where they had been extirpated.

We see them rustling through leaf litter in woods, gleaning fields, and even waddling along roadsides, with their disproportionately tiny heads bobbing constantly. If you come within a couple of hundred feet of them, you may be surprised how shy they are and the speed with which they vanish in a racket of whirring feathers. Remember, they are flying carcasses with heavy payloads of breast meat.

They know when it is hunting season, and gather in small parties of adults and jakes because the more eyes the better. There were thirteen in our woods last week, but if they had bigger brains they would know it’s an unlucky number.

A Merry Thanksgiving to all my American readers.

Next Post: A Zoo to Go

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