Red Tailed Hawks and turkeys - November birding

By Kate Crowley
November arrives and with it comes the doldrums of birdwatching.  Yes, there will be birds throughout the winter at our feeders and in the trees, but the excitement of spring and summer is a fading memory.  So, I look inspiration wherever I can find it and today it was while driving to the Twin Cities and counting the red-tail hawks perched on the arched road lights on the sides of I35.  They are big birds and if they are facing towards the car you will see a white breast with a dark band below it.  If they are turned with their backs to you, they appear to be mostly brown. 
There must be a lot of rodents in the grassy borders in certain stretches because there can be three or four hawks perched in a half mile. Earlier in the week my daughter and I saw two sitting right beside one another on a light pole; not typical for these solitary hunters.  We assumed they were a pair of siblings or possibly a parent and an offspring, though it is late in the season for that.  The other light poles might have a cluster of pigeons on them or occasionally a crow, with its head outstretched and beak open in unheard (by us) caw.
Later in the afternoon, while driving down Lake St., we watched pigeons flying in all directions as a raptor (probably a Coopers Hawk) swept through the sky.  They hunt other birds, but this one did not appear to be having much luck. 
Coming home, just before we turned the corner to come up our road we encountered the flock of 16 wild turkeys (females and this year’s young) milling around between our field and the forest on the other side of the road.  They skittered into the woods as we approached, but we know that’s just a temporary retreat.  This flock, which grew by 10 over the spring and summer months has decided that the sunflower seeds and mixed corn and seed mix we put out every day at our feeders is just what they like. 
In the beginning it was exciting to watch the big birds strut into the yard, but it has become too much of a good thing and the flock have taken up residence nearby.  We have watched them fly down from their nightly roosting spots in our tall red pines.  Flying is really not their thing, if they can help it.  When coming down from the trees, they glide on outstretched wings - a span of four feet. 
When really threatened they can get airborne, but they are big, bulky birds, weighing up to 18 pounds and bottom heavy.  More often than not they will take off running on their long, scaly legs, with skinny neck and tiny head leading the way.  The writer Verlyn Klinkenborg perfectly described their heads as, “no larger than an afterthought.” 
The feathers on these birds are really beautiful when the sun strikes them just so and you can see iridescent greens, bronze and purples on top of the russet brown, but their featherless head takes them out of the truly beautiful category.  They leave feathers throughout the yard and soon we will have enough to make a large bouquet.
The Wild Turkey has a reputation as a wily bird that easily eludes hunters.  We notice that they are very alert and wary. If we pass by the window they scatter.  On the other hand, as they have become more attached to the free meals under our feeders, they do not run away quite as far or fast as they did a couple months ago, when we go out to fill the feeders. 

There are a group of four big Tom turkeys that come by when the ‘girls’ and ‘young’uns’ are not around.  They each have a strange, dangling ‘tail’ of feathers on their chess and a red wattle on their head throats.  These are the turkey I do not want to antagonize.  Wild turkeys have been known to become aggressive towards people when they become too acclimated to them.  They will chase both people and pets and can use their large toes, with scimitar like claws to attack their enemies, which may include us.  There is a hilarious video (Terrible Tom the wild turkey causes reporter to lose her head) on YouTube of a reporter who was terrorized by a lone turkey.  I laugh just thinking about it, but I haven’t been in that position and it probably wouldn’t be so funny if I was being chased. 

It will be interesting to see if these ‘gobblers’ remain regulars at the feeders throughout the winter months, or whether they become food for local coyotes.  I think they would be formidable adversaries for foxes or great horned owls.  Come next spring, they may become prey for some hungry humans.  


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