Turkey Trouble

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Wild turkey. Photo by Rob Anderson.

By Rob Anderson

Early one morning, two months into my first ever field job, I had an experience I never expected to have. I was working as a field technician at Hastings Natural History Reservation in Carmel Valley, CA, studying the social behavior and vocal communication of the acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus). By this point in the job I had already seen some interesting things, such as a hawk attacking the very woodpecker I was trying to get a recording of for my boss’s experiment, and a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) sitting perched in a woodpecker tree for about twenty minutes. The experience I am going to talk about had nothing to do with woodpeckers or hawks, however.

It was approximately 7:30am and I had just finished setting up my recording equipment and blind in preparation for my eight-hour watch. I was about to press the record button on the recorder to begin making observations when I heard a very strange sound behind me. It sounded like someone was raking leaves, since all I could hear was a distinct scraping on cement followed by a very slight ruffle. This didn’t make sense though (really, who rakes leaves at 7:30 in the morning?). I turned around and, much to my surprise/intrigue/terror I saw a male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) in full display. This was the middle of the turkey breeding season, and he was making it very clear there was room for only one alpha male in that area. He was pacing back and forth on a 15-meter section of the road directly behind me, dragging his wing feathers on the cement to make the scraping sound as he shook his tail feathers to intimidate me even more. There I sat, in my blind, for nearly 15 minutes, terrified and thinking about what to do if this turkey attacked me. Perhaps I could use my chair or my scope like a lion tamer would and scare the turkey off? Or maybe the enormous bird hadn’t actually seen me and was simply attempting to prove dominance over another turkey. I was, after all, sitting in a blind, so it would have been quite surprising if he had seen me. However, at no point did it cross my mind that I should just turn around and begin my day. I knew that it would be extremely dangerous to focus on anything other than the uber-aggressive wild turkey, as I knew from none other than one Dwight Schrute of The Office.

The Office is undoubtedly my favorite show of all time. I have seen every episode countless times, and can flawlessly quote it each time I re-watch it. I even own a shirt with a quote from the show on it- this advice is just what I needed as the turkey paced threateningly not 5 meters from where I was seated. “Rule 17,” the shirt reads, “Don’t turn your back on bears, men you have wronged, or the dominant turkey during mating season.” I couldn’t believe it! I owned the most perfect shirt for the situation I was in, and I wasn’t even wearing it! I also realized that Mr. Schrute may not be quite as insane as he is portrayed on the show. This was, of course, intended to be an absurd joke, but ended up being quite sound advice.

After 15 minutes of craning my neck around to ensure the wild bird was always in my field of view, I finally accepted the fact that the turkey would not simply leave me alone. Very cautiously and with very precise movements, I got up from my chair and slowly left the blind. I quietly tip-toed away from my study site until I was at a distance I felt comfortable observing the bird with my binoculars. He seemed quite pleased with his conquest, and proceeded to make several loud ‘gobble gobble gobble’s to fully stake his claim over the territory. I continued walking down the road trying to figure out what I would end up doing that day, but when I came back 5 minutes later the turkey was gone and I was able to commence my watch. For the rest of the day, however, my heart jumped half-way up my throat each time I heard a twig snap or a leaf scrape the ground behind me.

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The view of the scene after Rob’s careful escape. His blind is on the right. Photo by Rob Anderson.

While there were many moments in this job that made me fall in love with field work, this experience stands out as the one that truly sold me on field research. To have the opportunity to directly follow advice from Dwight Schrute less than two months into my first field experience was absolutely unbelievable, and has made me extremely excited for what my future field positions will have in store.

Rob's turkey shirt
Rob wearing his Dwight Schrute shirt. Photo by Rob Anderson.

Watch Rob’s displaying wild turkey for yourself. Check out how it really does drag its wing feathers on the ground:

Video by Rob Anderson.


Rob Anderson is an undergraduate student at Northeastern University studying Environmental Science. He is currently studying social behavior and vocal communication in acorn woodpeckers, but is interested in eventually studying trophic cascades and any potential impacts on economics (but, hey, who knows what the future holds). He is loving his first experience as a field biologist, and is quite enthusiastic about where the career path will take him.

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