Last winter was awful for the animals on our hill. Thanks, probably, to a very late frost, there were no apples, pears, or crabapples, and fewer native fruits as well. Then there was the famous amount of snow, which slows down prey species like deer and turkeys quite a bit.
Every day there’d be turkeys (anywhere from 3 to 20+) under and around our bird feeder, cleaning up whatever the chickadees and goldfinches dropped, and biting the edible tops off equisetum (horsetail). Whereas in other years they’d roost ridiculously in our fruit trees eating frozen apples or crabapples, last winter sunflower seeds were all we had to offer. Still, I found many carcasses that winter, as the turkeys fed the local coyote, raven, fox, bobcat, and crow populations. It made for rather grim snowshoing at times.
Then in the spring I came upon a badly hidden turkey nest. All that was left of it were some bits of eggshell and yolk, and a few feathers from the adult guarding the nest.
As a result of all this devastation, my family has been concerned about whether turkeys would be able to survive in this little bit of Vermont, or whether they’d find our hill had nothing left for them. To date not one of us has spotted a single turkey since October. I saw some turkey scat in early December, then nothing more. The snow came, but whereas in normal years it would be marked almost immediately by what look like super-sized chicken tracks, this year there was nothing. The signs of their presence are usually so crowded and widespread that, this winter, the woods felt empty to me. Sure, there were still tracks of squirrel, snowshoe hare, mouse, weasel, fox, grouse, bobcat, deer, coyote, and the occasional walking raven, but their spoor are usually dwarfed by the sheer numbers of turkeys and their meandering habits.
So a couple of weeks ago I was confused by a profusion of prints. It had been rather melty and warm (as has been the norm for much of this winter so far), so the tracks I was seeing were unclear. Still, it was only because I had stopped looking for signs of turkeys that I didn’t recognize the prints at first – even when melted, their giant footprints (three toes in front, one toe behind) are easily identified.
When I realized what I was seeing, I started to grin. For the rest of my walk, all I could see were the innumerable circuitous, convoluted paths of wild turkeys. I probably grinned all the way home. I still haven’t laid eyes on one yet, but their tracks and scat tell me they’ve been here, every single day. The woods feel full again.
*Turkey hens’ scat is usually curled or rounded, whereas toms’ scat is J-shaped or even straight. For more on identifying the sex of a turkey based on scat shape, see Mary Holland’s excellent blog.