Giving thanks this Thanksgiving

We have much to be thankful for – you and I who devote our time and energy to the animals. I am grateful especially for the gene, circumstance, parent, pet, divinity or whatever that opened my eyes to the lives, loves and fears of the nonhuman animals around and among us – from bugs to bears and beyond – that give me a sense of place and purpose.

This time of year, I’m particularly thankful for turkeys … living, breathing turkeys, that is.

There are hundreds of wild turkeys in various groupings that populate Angel Canyon, the home of Best Friends Animal Society, and they have a pretty good life here. Like most human residents of the canyon, Silva and I put out seed for them and the other birds, squirrels and assorted small animals that are native to the area. Consequently, I have an up-close and personal relationship with several groups of the birds that stop by every day.

The turkeys are such regulars that our dogs don’t bother them, and if I let a group of dogs out on my way to tossing out some seed, the turkeys are not bothered by them and the dogs pretty much leave them alone.

They are big birds, and if the pickings are slim out among the juniper and the sage, as they sometimes are in the winter, one demanding bird or another will come and tap on the front door to remind us of our feeding responsibilities. That, I can assure you, does get the dogs going as the front door is mostly glass. A three-to-four-foot-tall bird with a bald head and iridescent feathers tapping its beak on the glass like a hotel guest ringing the bell on the front desk is quite a sight.

Wild turkeys are the heaviest bird native to North America and are fascinating in so many ways. They look strangely prehistoric with their scaly heads with red bumps and beautiful feathers. Around here, they begin their courting rituals in late February, with the males displaying their fantails and puffing themselves out and emitting gobbling sounds and a drumming noise from an air sack in their chest.

Knowing nothing about the species before I encountered them here, I was amazed to see what capable fliers they are. I once saw a single bird apparently trapped in the line of oncoming traffic alongside a steep vertical cliff. The lowest perch was about 50 feet above the road. I held my breath, expecting the worst as the big bird flew straight up, with tremendous grace, to that ledge and avoided the oncoming traffic. In fact, turkeys can run at speeds of around 25 miles per hour and fly at 55 miles per hour, which explains how they can thrive in a neighborhood populated by natural predators like coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions and various raptors.

In early spring, hens show up with their chicks in tow, and watching the little ones grow through the season is about as rewarding a daily benchmark of life as one can imagine. I count them every time I see them to monitor their success at avoiding the dangers of life in the wild. If, by chance, a raven or a hawk flies overhead, the chicks peel off from mom and hide under a tree until the shadow passes. If adults and chicks suddenly disappear, look for a coyote or something bigger.

Now, as we are coming into winter and this year’s chicks are nearing maturity, although clearly smaller than their elders, it’s reassuring to know that these particular birds will not end up on anyone’s table this Thanksgiving Day.

Turkeys are delightful animals. They are gentle, smart and much more fun to watch than to eat! I know you love animals or you wouldn’t be reading this website, so if you have a great veggie Thanksgiving recipe to share, post it or a link to it below. Here is a great article from the New York Times featuring a collection of veggie and vegan dishes for your Thanksgiving table. Have a celebration that all of us, turkeys included, can give thanks for.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society