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Essay: Maybe Icarus Was A Turkey

For J.F. Riordan, one of her great pleasures is watching the turkeys flying up to their nighttime berths at dusk. But one turkey in particular caught her attention...

Although Milwaukee’s central city is a bustling urban center - you can still see a fair share of wild animals. One of the most common culprits is the wild turkey.

For author J.F. Riordan, turkeys aren’t just curious anomalies on city streets - they’re a regular part of her routine. One turkey, in particular, made a real impression:

We live at Turkey Central. It started out small a few years ago, when we would occasionally hear turkey calls in the spring. But now there are turkeys — about forty of them — who roost in our trees every night, and their comings and goings are part of the rhythm of our days. At dawn and at dusk, you can look up into the tops of the trees and see these unwieldy, bulbous creatures, precariously perched on the tiniest of branches, fifty feet above the floor of the woods. I have no idea how they manage to stay there, but so far, I have seen no evidence of them falling. They make quite a lot of noise, too, which I rather enjoy.

For those pedants among you, I draw your attention to the fact that wild turkeys constitute a flock. Domestic turkeys constitute a rafter, or a gang.

I don't know.

One of my great pleasures in life is to watch the turkeys at dusk, flying, one by one, up to their nighttime berths. They gobble as they make a running start, with a long rumble like a B-52 at takeoff, and then, unexpectedly, they take to the air, and with a great flapping, land on a perfectly unsuitable branch, bobbling back and forth, as they establish their balance. This takes some time, and it is most enjoyable to watch with a cocktail in hand. Preferably bourbon, but I am not always particular.

We frequently attempt to bore our guests with it, but everyone who witnesses it seems as riveted as we are.

Last year, we had one turkey who broke the routine. Instead of using the little hill in the woods for his launch, he would courageously mount the big hill to our house, where dogs do dwell. He would get almost to the top, near the patio, and then he would turn and run down the hill, his wings flapping, using the hill for acceleration on takeoff. My husband commented on it one night in amazement, and after that, the turkey came — this one bird, alone — every night.

I came to think of this bird as an innovator, a cultural leader, possibly breaking the Darwinian bonds of avian technology. I looked for him, I admired him, and I was delighted by him. Then came turkey season. I don't hunt, so I don't know what the rules are about where you can shoot, or when, or how. But I can say that the number of turkeys was considerably diminished. As winter came on, there were only about a dozen left. And our innovator was gone. The flock that remained continued its old habits, without the variety or novelty.

In my heart, I know what probably happened. But I like to think of him, laboriously climbing the perilous hill, alone, undaunted, his vision of glory before him, as he turns and begins the run to takeoff, lifting up exultantly from the earth, closer and closer to the sun, on his way to immortality.

It's spring again, and we have more turkeys than ever. But not the innovator. The flock has lost some of its magic for me.

He was a turkey. And I think of him everyday.

Wisconsin writer J.F. Riordan’s latest book is a series of essays called Reflections on a Life in Exile.