While we were visiting family near Boston this weekend, we happened upon the most interesting sight: sixteen wild turkeys foraging for food in the backyard.
We were just returning from breakfast when a line of these birds started slowly walking through the snow to a place near the patio furniture under a makeshift bird feeder.
We walked a little nearer, making sure to keep enough distance between us and the potentially territorial flock. They watched us with the same caution but kept on rooting around for something to eat.
It made me think of all the close encounters with birds I've had over the years.
Once, when I was a teenager, I'd heard what sounded like a truck's horn coming from our vegetable garden. When it drowned out the Pink Floyd playing loudly on my bedroom stereo, curiosity got the better of me and I went to investigate.
At first I didn't know what it was wading through the tomato plants. A turkey? No. A peacock? Maybe ... but it was huge ... a brown and it didn't really sound anything like the peacocks the lady across the road was raising. I'd never seen one up close, but they always sounded like they were crowing for "help" when their voices carried over the road. This one sounded like it could use an oil change.
When I turned to walk back to the house this great beast of a bird followed me.
I walked faster.
It started to fly. It flew past me, crashed into the house and clawed all the way down the siding until it landed on the ground with a thud. Immediately it righted itself and turned in my direction.
I started to walk to the front yard. Again it followed me until it saw one of two young maple trees planted there. Another brief flight past me, this landing more successful. Of course the tree, though it fared better than the siding, looked lopsided now as the bird weighed the limb it had claimed to just a few inches from the ground.
I was so stunned by this odd fauna in our suburban landscape I didn't really think about its sharp claws that had dug ruts into the house, or about haw dangerous such a bird could be to a stupid human like me.
I just stood there and gawked.
My dad called the lady who lived across the thoroughfare and told her he thought one of her birds had wandered over.
He laughed for years at her initial response: "What makes you think it's my peacock?"
And how he had to describe the beaked behemoth weighing down our maple tree before she'd take him for anything but a crank.
"Oh, that's Charlie," she said, recognizing I-don't-know-what.
She sent one of her sons over, a big man, who arrived with thick gloves and a cage. He reminded me of Jim Fowler from Mutual Omaha's Wild Kingdom as he grappled with the bird while we all watched. A few squawks and feathers later, Charlie was on his way home.
Now one domesticated bird off on walkabout isn't really the same as finding nature in your backyard. But it's something that could leave a lasting impression, and spur a fascination for ornithology.
And since this week is National Wildlife Week, I'd thought I'd celebrate by joining The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Citizen Science NestWatch program.
It's fascinating stuff.
Nest peepers should only check nests once or twice a week to minimize disturbance, and avoid checking on nests during the early morning hours and at or after dusk. They should also avoid the nest during inclement weather or when the birds are nearly fledgling.
Nest watchers need to be careful of tipping off predators making sure they are not followed by neighborhood cats or blue jays and crows. They should also vary their routes to and from the nest, making a continual loop. (Animals aren't stupid).
Of course that's just the tip of what there is to learn.
I can't wait to uncover the most confounding of close encounters with nesting ...
Why do the phoebes (and last year the chickadees) build their nests right above the loudest and most used door in the house?
Then they declare war in the form of swooping dives and well-positioned poop drops.
Perhaps they are the true inspiration for Angry Birds.