Our Fine Feathered Friends

I’ve never been much of a wildlife enthusiast, mainly because viewing wildlife entails going outside, and outside is where the things that make me sneeze live. (Note: Indoors is the other place where the things that make me sneeze live, but at least there is, depending on the locale, air conditioning.)

With that said, though, I’ve come to enjoy living on a college campus that also plays home to a number of wild turkeys. There are four toms that wander the campus together, pecking at acorns and bugs and whatever else turkeys eat. One can almost imagine them as a set of human traveling companions … like a group of monks wearing scratchy brown robes, or a doo-wop quartet hanging out on a street corner.

If Benjamin Franklin had won the day, the wild turkey would have been our national bird instead of the bald eagle, and I cannot help but wonder what such a change in iconography might have done for our national zeitgeist. Think about it:

  • The bald eagle is a bird of prey. The wild turkey is an omnivore.
  • The bald eagle is sleek and muscular. The wild turkey is a bowling ball with wings.
  • The bald eagle is a majestic muse for poets. The wild turkey is something that prompts pointing and laughter.
  • The bald eagle seems to mate for life. The wild turkey is a polygamist.
  • The bald eagle couple sticks to themselves. The wild turkeys will woo their hens in groups.
  • The bald eagle is Captain America. The wild turkey is Homer Simpson with Archie Andrews’ girl problems.
  • The bald eagle made the scariest Muppet. The wild turkey scares virtually no one.

I can’t help but think we’d be a humbler country if Ben Franklin had won the big bird debate. And I think the turkeys offer some valuable gifts to the community on this hill, a place that is home to both a Christian seminary (with a strong Unitarian Universalist community) and a Jewish college and rabbinical school:

  • The turkeys will wander back and forth between the two schools without prejudice.
  • No one’s out to hurt them, and they’re not out to hurt anyone (though I did hear rumors that one went through a window once, maybe scared by a car or coyote).
  • Their vocalizations are simultaneously unintelligible to anyone and fully open to interpretation by everyone.
  • Sometimes newly fallen feathers signify their recent passage through an area even if they’re no longer in sight.
  • No one knows when they’re going to appear, but you can’t help but slow down and just watch when their presence becomes known.
  • Pretty much everyone here has an opinion about them.
  • Sometimes they’re the highlight of an otherwise dull or discouraging day.

I’m not saying the turkeys are bringing the presence of the divine into our midst. But I’d feel pretty arrogant trying to dismiss that point out of hand, either.

Learning to live and to live peaceably in the presence of these and other wild creatures — we also have nested hawks, rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks, and we have in the past had a coyote loping around the place — is a spiritual practice of its own that I didn’t expect to encounter living in a major metropolitan area. But I think the lessons carry over into encounters with the religious Other; and when you’re religiously unaffiliated as am I, everyone is a religious Other:

  • There’s room for both of us.
  • Try not to scare them, and try not to be scared by them.
  • If you have no negative intent, give the benefit of the doubt to the other one as well.
  • Your language isn’t wrong just because they don’t understand it. And neither is theirs just because you don’t get it.
  • Life’s not a competition, and you’re not even playing the same sports. You’ll lose the feather-puffing and clucking contest, and no one wants to read the turkey’s thesis. You might get bored trying to pray five times a day, while someone else may feel they were born OK the first time.
  • Most importantly, you and they are migrating to your own respective destinations with your own particular intentions and looking for your own particular benchmarks along the way. Don’t take it personally; not everything is about you.

With the new school year under way, we seminarians have flocked back together at our different schools. May your feathers remain unruffled for a few more weeks. And if you think YOU’RE getting nervous around November, imagine how the turkeys must feel!

Image: Wild turkey of the Eastern United States, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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3 thoughts on “Our Fine Feathered Friends

  1. Jason, I love this! Thanks for sharing the experience on the hill, and giving others a glimpse into the lives of our turkey friends. Now when I see them around campus, I’ll think of your article!

  2. Jason! It was nice seeing you today!
    Wow, this article is very creative and thought provoking. My kids and I will try not to be scared of the family tribe of turkeys and welcome them gracefully. They have come up to my door and front window a couple of times…and the coyote, yes, my son witnessed an Eastern coyote and a fox when taking the trash to the dumpster one night. He said the coyote’s eyes were glowing.

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