The sun pours brilliant white light through a turquoise sky on the snow-covered peaks before me. A pair of black-billed magpies chase a sharp-shinned hawk through stands of Gambel oak while Steller’s jays urge them on. Northern flickers and Townsend’s solitaires call from the narrow-leaf cottonwood trees that line the creek, finally ice-free and happily burbling.
The sun is two hours high above the mountains, but the ground remains frozen. I lower my tailgate and back slowly across the rock-hard mud to the feeder. Standing in the back of my truck, I open and empty a fifty pound bag of corn into the hopper, then two more bags, and part of a fourth. It is, by my account, the twenty-third bag since we began feeding wild turkeys last November.
I pull my truck forward, well out of the way, return to the feeder and manually start it. It whirs like an oversized popcorn popper as it throws kernels nearly a hundred feet. After ninety seconds it stops. The turkeys are watching. They know the feeder’s sound and its rhythms. They call to each other from the hills on either side but they do not come down – not yet, at least.
I return at 5 p.m. Many birds are present and waiting. They ignore me. I remain in my truck and watch. A few stand expectantly beneath the feeder, looking up at it. At 5:20 p.m. the feeder begin the first of three ninety second broadcasts, spaced at five minute intervals. Turkeys sprint down the hillside like giant roadrunners, deceptively quick and agile. More fly in from the west, through the cottonwoods, the wind roaring through their feathers. They slide on the mud as they land. It is chaos around the feeder. I try to count the birds but give up when I reach 122. Some birds bark, others gobble, and many coo, sounding very much like doves, but most are silent, hurriedly hunting and pecking the grains of corn as they rain down into the mud. Every now and again a squabble occurs, but the process is mostly peaceful.
The feeder falls silent for the last time. Birds begin to wander slowly back into the hills. Six males with bright blue faces and crimson wattles stand shoulder to shoulder and fan their tails, then begin to drum. I leave my truck and walk down the road to open the gate. When I turn around, I am not alone. My wild friends have followed me, docile as barn yard chickens, hoping for more. I walk toward and then through them, returning to the feeder. They escort me, nearly close enough to touch, a bodyguard of large, wary, fascinating, and paradoxically ugly but beautiful birds. I reach the feeder and manually activate it. The chaos begins anew and I cannot help but smile.