A male wild turkey performs a courtship dance while a female looks on.  USFWS image
A male wild turkey performs a courtship dance while a female looks on. USFWS image
Nature Jane has been at the supermarket contemplating Butterballs. They are nicely pink, shrink-wrapped, and come with their own personal hypodermic of buttery goo designed for self-injection. It's one convenient turkey. After you take the plastic off, you just plop it in a pan, stuff it full of soggy bread, pop it in the oven, and then spend your time wondering what the heck you did with the battery-powered carving knives.

Now, Nature Jane does not require all her food to have a personality. Sure, popcorn squeaks, but steamed spinach is about as limp as the stock market these days. Still, a turkey seems like it would have more going for it than succulent breast meat. I mean, they have cobalt blue heads (blue skin, that is, not feathers), and the males have a snood thingy on their foreheads that makes them look like one of the unfriendly, cerebrally malformed aliens on the Starship Enterprise.

Curiosity nudged Jane to wander the dusty stacks of the Bowdoin College library to find an obscure monograph on the wild turkey.

Turns out the domestic Butterballs are really just a white-feathered, penned-up version of their wild, dark-feathered gypsy kin. Given the chance, they would hop the fence and join the gypsys in the oaks, because those wild turkeys know how to have fun.

It turns out they're dancing fools.

By the time I finished the monograph, I was practicing the Scratch Step (left foot forward, the right foot twice, left foot forward, then jump back) in the library aisles, much to the amusement of students studying for mid-terms.

This wasn't a dance step for special occasions. The turkeys are just scratching up a supper of acorns and the odd frog or salamander. Step three times and jump back, jump back, jump back. I really needed an Otis Redding sound-track for appropriate musical accompaniment.

Dance step number two is sort of a hip-hop, street funk kind of move, boringly called "Stretching" by the unimaginative biologist who wrote the monograph.

You throw your wings back and run forward a few steps, then standing on your left foot, you lift your right leg and slide it along the inside of your right wing. Repeat on the left side. I tried it, but I looked like Barney the purple dinosaur doing a version of Swan Lake. It just didn't fly.
Only males of the species practice the Strut Step during spring courtship, but since I was only pretending to be a turkey, I figured I wouldn't discriminate. When a female turkey appears, the male sucks in his gut, puffs out his chest, fans out his tail, juts out his chin, and sizes up the possibilities presented. Humming, he glides towards and then circles around the female. Not so different than the barroom courtship shuffle. I successfully sucked, puffed, jutted, hummed and circled, but I just couldn't get my tail to fan. Must be a guy thing.

Wild turkeys that spend their days dancing in the woods and fields climb up into the trees and settle down for the night by balancing on a branch, wrapping their toes around it, and tucking their snoods into their back feathers. If I slept like that, I'd wake up with a yelp. Which is exactly what they do before leaping out of the tree in the morning.

Not only do they yelp, they go putt-putt-putt like my '67 Volkswagen Beetle, Emmy Lou. The putt-putt-putt is an alarm call. Not quite what you'd expect, but I have seen people leap out of the way when Emmy Lou approaches so it must work.

Wild turkeys have a whole American Songbook of calls, but my favorites were the song and dance routines. On occasion, turkeys line up side by side and advance through the woods while doing the Scratch Step (one, one-two, one, jump back) and purring. That's right. A whole phalanx of turkeys approaching, dancing and purring like kitty cats.

That's a sight Nature Jane would trade in her camouflage shirt and gold hoop earrings to see. I'm still going to have a drumstick on Thursday, thank you, but after the meal I might be inspired to get up and jump back, jump back, jump back. And after a slice of pumpkin pie, I'll probably curl up, tuck my snood into my back feathers, and purr.