Right on, Target!

by Christina Nealson

I figure she weighs about 13 pounds, minus the arrow that pierces her breast and protrudes six inches from either side of her body. Someone missed a clean kill during turkey season this fall. He or she loaded an arrow with a yellow feather, pulled the bow taut and let it rip. Which it did, but not quite as intended. The hen miraculously escaped stuffing, roasting and carving on a Thanksgiving platter, and lived not only to see another day but also to become a bit of a legend, here in southern Colorado's Mancos River Valley.

Aptly named "Target" by the local ranchers, the turkey continues to scour the riverside for seeds, acorns, tubers and insects. Turkeys are opportunistic omnivores, with a normal diet that's 90 percent plant and 10 percent lizards and the like. The birds generally prefer the cover of Gambel oak, piƱon-juniper and ponderosa. But the flock of 80 that roams the fields east of Mesa Verde National Monument also likes the combination of open pastures and the cover of the river's edge.

There's been talk of trapping Target and removing the arrow. Many of us worried that she wouldn't be able to lift off the ground to roost at night in the tangled timber of old cottonwood trees along the river's edge. But she manages, somehow. I just took a drive down the road and saw her high up in a leafless cottonwood with a dozen other turkeys. She appears to live quite normally, despite the protruding arrow.

There are hundreds of wild turkeys in this 7,000-foot-high mountain valley. Turkeys were a staple of the pre-Columbian Native Americans who constructed the impressive cliff dwellings now protected by the Mesa Verde World Heritage Site. The Natives eventually domesticated the wild bird and used it for both utilitarian and ritual purposes: feather robes, blankets and arrow fletchings as well as prayer sticks and masks. Turkeys were raised for their feathers, meat, bone and eggs. Farther to the north, the Lakota used 28 turkey feathers for the headdress in their crowning ritual. The Hopi used four turkey feathers to symbolize the sacred four winds.

Observers report seeing turkey flocks numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the 18th and 19th centuries. It must have been an amazing site, akin to the vast flocks of now-extinct passenger pigeons that once darkened the sky. But hunting and loss of habitat contributed to their near extinction. Now, thanks to successful reintroduction programs, they're back: In Colorado, there were 3,000 turkeys in 1969; by 1999, there were 22,000. Nationwide, the population has grown to 6.4 million.

Contrary to legend, Ben Franklin didn't promote the wild turkey as the national symbol instead of the bald eagle. However, he did observe that "the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America."

A few years back, using binoculars, I spotted wild turkeys on a distant plateau. A tail-spread tom in rotund strut herded his harem of eight. They stepped and pecked their way from bush to tree as they worked their way out of my sight.  Suddenly, a hen broke rank and ran to the edge of the cliff.   Where was she going?  It was a 100-yard drop -- a suicidal plunge.  But no, she took flight.  Flap.  Flap. I thought: Turkeys can't do this! Sure, they flutter their way up to roost in trees, but they don't go launching themselves across 40-yard chasms.  But flap, flap, the turkey flew ... right towards me!  She swooped in like a para-glider and landed 10 feet away. I sat dumbfounded as we locked eyes and she took two leather-footed steps towards me.

Well, it turns out turkeys can do that. They can fly at 55 mph for up to one mile.  Just as they can roost, graze, peck and swallow even with an arrow through the breast. This turkey that saunters along the banks of the Mancos River is nothing if not a metaphor.  You see her, and you are stopped in your tracks at the miracle of her survival. You wonder if she isn't the perfect national symbol, after all -- for all of us in these troubled, perilous times as we make the best of life with a wounded heart.

Christina Nealson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer and naturalist in Mancos, Colorado.

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