Cambrian: Opinion

Respectable, responsible, well-mannered, gracious — what a turkey!

Wild turkeys and deer mix freely at Marcia Rhoades' backcountry home well up San Simeon Creek canyon north east of Cambria.
Wild turkeys and deer mix freely at Marcia Rhoades' backcountry home well up San Simeon Creek canyon north east of Cambria.

As Thanksgiving rolls around again, many of us start thinking about the annual family feast. Even though Thanksgiving is still a ways off, I can already feel the Pavlovian bell ringing in my taste buds. Yum, drool. In spite of the Thanksgiving treat turkeys provide to many families, on a personal turkey level, I don’t think we give this elegant bird its due.

We are surrounded by wild turkeys here in the Santa Lucia Mountains in Cambria’s backcountry, so we have opportunities throughout the year to watch as they go about their daily routine of flying out of our maple trees each morning, hunting for grubs and seeds during the day, and flying back into the trees at dusk.

They seem like savvy, upstanding birds, so why do we so often refer to people as turkeys when they do something particularly stupid or act like total ah, donkeys? You’ve heard people do this. I’ve done it myself from time to time. But why? How have turkeys gotten such a bad rap that we malign them so universally?

Day in and day out, we see our local wild turkeys quietly living their lives in a respectable, responsible manner — eating healthy food, playing well with others, even outside their own species, taking very good care of their families, and minding their own business. They are protective of one another — the gobblers dutifully guarding the hens, and the hens watching lovingly over their babies (poults). They are not aggressive with other animals and are pretty accepting of our human presence in their world.

Granted, the gobblers can get a little pushy during the mating season as they all vie for the attention of the hens. Otherwise, however, they are true gentlemen. They are gracious about sharing the backcountry bounty with their other bird neighbors (even the blue jays) and tolerate our border collie, Laddie. They are polite, well mannered, unassuming creatures worthy of respect. Their children are very well behaved and obey instantly when a parent makes a demand.

Once I saw a hawk snatch and carry off a poult. The adults started screaming and running around, as hysterical as any of us would be if a predator stole one of our children. There were at least 10 other poults close by and, with some signal from their moms, they flattened themselves so completely into our native grasses, that I couldn’t see them at all, even though they were practically under my feet. Not one of them argued or said, “Just a minute.” Their compliance was instantaneous and silent.

Ben Franklin once suggested honoring the turkey as our national bird. Obviously, his recommendation didn’t carry the day, but I think the turkey would be treated with a lot more respect if it had. Would we, then, be eating bald eagles for Thanksgiving dinner?

From now on, when you hear people referring to someone as a turkey for dumb or inappropriate behavior, you might want to tell them to rethink the label. Considering what noble bird citizens they are, calling someone a turkey should be considered a great compliment.

Happy Thanksgiving, Cambria!