Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Butterflies and Moths of Blue Maples

Few among us can resist pausing when a butterfly flutters past our gaze. For that fleeting moment, we are witness to the mysterious Archetype of Metamorphosis. Over the centuries, the butterfly has
come to symbolize the most profound physical journey of change leading to the inescapable transformation of form and consciousness.

After lamenting the decrease of bird diversity last year at Blue Maples, I noticed that there were an abundance of butterflies and moths in the gardens. Realizing how little I knew about them, I embarked on a project to identify as many as I could. I am not an expert by any means. In fact, I was once lightly chastised for posting a moth to the Butterfly Gallery on Google+. So if I got a few wrong, chalk it up to the subtle nuances of species identification.

To the ancients, butterflies were an emblem of the soul and of the unconscious attraction towards light. Aristotle gave the butterfly the name
‘Psyche’, the Greek word for soul. In art, Psyche is often depicted with butterfly wings. Winged references also abound in Literature. To the poet Robert Frost, butterflies were ‘flowers that fly and all but sing’. Victor Hugo saw them as harbingers of tragedy transformed and were, ‘torn love-letters that through the sky, flutter and float and change to butterflies".

Cross-cultural references to butterflies exist around the world. To the Blackfoot Indian, the butterfly were carriers of dreams innate with news relayed to us when we fall asleep. In China, butterflies were used as symbols of conjugal bliss and joy. Psychoanalysis also regards the butterfly as a symbol of rebirth. For some, butterflies were not always considered the messengers of good fortune. In the Old World, butterflies sometimes had more negative connotations and thought to be spirits of the dead. Sailors believed that if they saw a butterfly prior to embarkation, they would die at sea. In Gnostic art, the Angel of Death is depicted crushing a butterfly underfoot - for the butterfly’s attraction to flame and light symbolized purification by fire.

Today, scientists study butterflies as key indicator species to tell us about the health of our planetary ecosystems. Environmentalist Mary Colwell, author of the book: John Muir – the Scotsman Who Saved America’s Wild Places, wrote that butterflies are one of the world’s greatest pollinators, along with bees and a host of other insects. Butterflies are so sensitive that just the addition of a chemical to the air, or pollution in the water, or loss of habitat can dramatically affect entire populations.

Did you know that butterflies must be warm to fly? They need body temperatures close to ours for proper flight. That is why we often see them basking in the sunlight with open wings and angling their bodies toward the sun to increase their body temperature prior to take-off. Once they are up and fluttering, their flight muscles provide enough heat to keep them going.

Basking in the sun is especially important to our early Spring butterflies that often have dark coloured
bodies and wings to aid in capturing solar heat. This Mourning Cloak (nymphalis antiopa) named for resembling a traditional cloak worn "in mourning" is an early Spring visitor. The rich maroon colour of the upper surface of its wings glisten in the sun. To me the Mourning Cloak looks like a delicious chocolate butterfly!

Then there are those beautiful Blues! The Northern Blue (plebejus idas) is a small North American butterfly with bright silvery-blue to purplish-blue wings, outlined with a narrow dark border and a white
fringe. This species will often ‘mud puddle’ - drink up minerals from damp ground. It also has a symbiotic relationship with ants. Larva are attended to by ants, which protect them from flies and wasps. The larva secretes a drop of liquid high in sugars and amino acids that the ants then collect.

The Woodland Skipper (ochlodes sylvanoides) are a lovely, tawny colour. When they fly they look like miniature furry jets zipping
about. This skipper is found in virtually every kind of open habitat, including woodland clearings.
The White Admiral (limenitis arthemis) is a common and abundant species. Roadways and clearings in wooded areas are where they
are most often seen.  Its cousin, the Red Admiral with bright fire-colours on black wings slashed with crimson - inspired images of an inferno hell to the ancients.

The velvety Northern Crescent (Phyciodes cocyta) is lovely to watch. The etymology of this species name is derived from the Greek underworld river "Cocytus" – the river of lamentation. It is linked to Socrates, who on
trial, beseeched his fellow citizens to do right by their country.

I noticed this Little Wood-Satyr (megisto cymela) resting on a climbing vine. It is found near woods or shrubby areas and its flight is bouncy. This greyish-brown butterfly with
rounded wings has two dark eye-spots on each wing, and has a tiny third spot on the hind wing. The spots contain two tiny metallic grey pupils. I could see these metallic eye spots reflecting in the sun.
It took some time to distinguish the Eastern Comma (polygonia comma) from the Question Mark. The Eastern Comma has three distinctive aligned dots on its upper wing.

The Northern Pearly-eye (enodia anthedon) is soft brown in colour above and below, with slightly scalloped wing margins. The hindwings have five similar spots above and six beneath;
the last one on the underside has a double pupil. Unlike most other butterfly species that prefer clearings and woods edges, this butterfly is one of the few truly shade-loving butterflies in Canada and is found in deciduous or mixed wooded areas like our forest.

The Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (papilio Canadensis) is the only member of the worldwide Swallowtail family to live this far north. Its size and distinctive pattern of a
yellow ground colour with wide, black tiger stripes is easily recognized. The Canadian Swallowtail body has layers of soft velvet-like hairs, always tempting me to want to pet it like a cat.

The West Virginia White (pieris virginiensis) has wings that are almost translucent with light greyish-brown veins that create delicate lace-like butterfly wings. This photo shows them
coupling. There is some concern over the long-term survival of the West White Virginia that
prefers rich, moist deciduous woods. Since it refuses to cross open areas, forest fragmentation is the largest threat to this butterfly's survival.
In summer, we see many yellow butterflies of the Sulphur family pollinating flowers. Their capacity to camouflage is stunning! One
can barely see this Pink-edged Sulphur (colias interior) on this yellow cone flower!

The Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly displays a pattern of behavior that’s unique among all insects. Its long-distance
migration is one of the world’s great natural wonders and now considered an "endangered natural phenomenon." The scope of this migration resembles that of many bird species. While climate change appears to affect their arduous journey, efforts to correct human error in interrupting this natural migration is ongoing. This includes awareness campaigns, banning the use of certain pesticides, restoration of habitat along the way, replanting of milkweed, and the protection of Mexican breeding sanctuaries.

Do you know how to tell if a Monarch is a male or female? While males are slightly larger than
females, they also have a black spot on each hind wing that is made up of specialized scales, possibly used to emit pheromones to attract females.
Moths are the night shift of the Earth's pollination industry. Long after bees and butterflies have gone home for the night, most moths are out there sipping on nectar, spreading pollen from plant to plant, or banging around your porch light looking to mate.

While walking in our forest, we found this Cecropia moth (hyalophora ceropia) which is North America's largest native moth. This one measured 5.5 inches or 13.97cm. It was a
male moth as indicated by its extra feathery antennae. To find a mate, the female emits pheromones and the male’s sensitive antennae can detect this female magic for more than a mile away! They mate in the early morning hours and can go all day. Unfortunately, this moth was dying, probably after a bout of vigorous mating, which at least half of the human population would agree, is a rather good way to go.

When flying through the air with its charcoal grey outer wings, the Virginia Ctenucha moth
(ctenucha virginica) looks like a small Darth
Vader helmet. But once it lands – Bazinga - it reveals a metallic turquoise body, bright orange head with tufts of yellow hair and feathery antennae. This common and widespread critter proves once again that you can’t tell a book by its cover, nor a moth by its flutter!

Is it a bird? A bee? A hummingbird? Nope, it’s a Hummingbird Clearwing moth (hemaris thysbe). As a primary pollinator, this
moth sips nectar by hovering in front of the flower the way a
hummingbird does, rather than like a bee which lands on the flower itself.
So these are but a few of my ethereal visitors that have kept me spell-bound in appreciation of the amazing designer of the natural world.
In closing, I often think about the query on transformation by John Harricharan.

"The caterpillar dies so the butterfly could be born. And, yet, the caterpillar lives in the butterfly and
they are but one.

So when I die, it will be that I have been transformed from the caterpillar of earth to the butterfly of the universe."

Acknowledgement to [Source: Caspari, Elizabeth, and Ken Robbins. "Moth." Animal Life in Nature, Myth and Dreams. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 2003. 171-173. Print.]

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Wild Raccoons and the Wildlife Rehabilitators Who Love Them

For the wildlife connoisseur, the raccoon is probably one of the most intelligent and beautifully-designed animals to observe and ponder. Who has not played a game of wits
with a raccoon over a simple thing like securing your garbage pail? Or perhaps tried to thwart its intent to set up a den in one of your garden sheds or your attic? While this game of matching wits has caused humans inordinate amounts of stress – for the raccoon – it’s like going to pre-school, further developing their brain and manual dexterity.

According to the Nature of Things by David Suzuki, biologists have noted that like humans and primates, the raccoon is unique among species for certain abilities. It seems that their rapidly developing intelligence has put them on a fast lane of evolution. This fast track has much to do with the fact that raccoons are adaptable to change and will eat almost anything, just like humans. They continue to develop tremendous manual dexterity – mainly by figuring out the puzzles we unwittingly give them as we batten down the hatches and barricade our food wastes.
One of the things that distinguished humans from many other species was the design of our
hands. The development of the thumb, an evolutionary marvel, took Nature about a million years to perfect. Have you had the chance to look closely at a raccoon’s hand sporting a very effective thumb-like digit? They have four of them. If you haven’t started already, this is where you begin to ponder.
Ever wonder how a raccoon can fit into such small spaces? When fully grown, they are not exactly Tiny Tim. Well, if the little rascals didn’t up and evolve the ability to collapse their spine! It’s one of the first things a mother raccoon teaches her kits when they go out exploring. Soon, the smallest opening in a shed door or roof eave can be easily accessed. So as not to be outdone, the other day I tried to collapse my spine to fit into the size 10 dress I use to wear before having a baby - but alas to no avail.

Leaving this path of unnerving inquiry about who’s who on the fast lane of evolution, let’s look at the raccoon coat. The colouration of the fur is beautiful and so symmetrical. Talk
about many useful shades of grey, with the stripes strategically melting into the shadows as they slip unnoticed through a forest night. They don’t hibernate, but with fat reserves built up over the summer, they can withstand a cold winter with little food. And that iconic robber mask designed perhaps to taunt us? Raccoons may not be capable of stealing our place on the ladder of evolution – but they can sure make us move over and share a rung or two.

Like humans, raccoons are social animals. The females will den collectively with other females and nanny babies together. The males travel and live together until mating time brings them to females. Baby raccoons, or kits are very tactile and use their hands to feel out their surroundings. The soft skin on each palm of their hands
contains hundreds of sensory glands. It is fascinating to watch a young kit use a kneading-motion hand manoeuver, slowly sensing and identifying objects in their environment. Did you know that raccoon babies purr just like kittens when content?

Raccoons are not endangered and with better food sources have a healthy population base in urban areas, albeit less so in the country. So why do we need Wildlife Rehabilitators for raccoons? Simply because as history has often illustrated with species after species, things can change, real fast. Humans kill many raccoons deliberately – seeing them as an unnecessary nuisance. Or many are killed on our increasing roadways. There are ongoing ‘culls’ in urban areas to reduce their numbers, while human civilization continually confiscates the natural habitat upon which they need to survive.

Wildlife Rehabilitators are certified by provincial governments and authorized to care for wildlife in distress until they can be released back into the wild. In the spring, when many parent animals meet an untimely death, the wildlife centres are filled with baby animals, including many raccoon kits. Motivated by love and respect of the species they specialize in, Certified Wildlife Rehabilitators are the unsung heroes, volunteering their time to try and keep balance within a natural system so often decimated by thoughtless human acts of plunder.

One day, a very sick raccoon wandered onto my property. I called Lisa Peterson, the local Certified Wildlife Rehabilitator. She determined it had advanced distemper and unfortunately needed to be put down. Later, I asked her why she cares for these wild creatures. In 2000,
Lisa came home from work and found two raccoon babies on the side of the road – the mother had been killed. She took them to the Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre in Napanee, Ontario and met the founder, the formidable wildlife crusader Sue Meech. Lisa volunteered to feed them and learned more about the species. She proceeded to get her wildlife rehabilitation license from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR).

Each year, Lisa gets many abandoned raccoon babies to nurture – anywhere from 8 to 12 at a time. A visit to the Peterson home is like walking into a Dr. Doolittle movie set. As volunteers, improvisation is paramount, and her husband Laurie builds the most amazing cages. The first cage was an old truck cabin fixed up as a cage. Laurie then got an old trailer and renovated it. Famously called the ‘Coondo’ - it is a bee-hive of activity in the spring and summer.

Raising baby raccoons is labour-intensive and Lisa is up for their 3:00am feeding for months on end. There is also extensive administrative work as MNR can inspect the "Coondo" at any time. Lisa must keep clear records on each baby, i.e.: recording it’s overall health, weight gain and treatment received. Before release, the raccoons are taken to a wildlife vet and given the appropriate shots for distemper and rabies.

Watching Lisa Peterson interact and nurture baby raccoons is like seeing an angel of mercy
attending to a creature deemed valueless and a throw-away nuisance. ‘What you do to the least of them’ comes to mind.
A word of caution. Raccoons do not make successful pets. In fact, in Canada it is illegal to do so. Raccoons, once matured, want to be with their own kind. While cute when young, the raccoon will morph into powerful adults that are extremely cunning, wild and solely-focussed on their survival and propagation.

Ever witness a raccoon release? Enjoy the video at:


Friday, 10 July 2015

Here's to Bumble Bees and Sacs Full of Pollen

Every day, in tribute to the natural world that surrounds us, I attempt to re-enact abundance. The fruits of my efforts are best sown in early morning as the dawn slowly nudges out the night. Spread a little seed there, hang some suet here, pour fresh water over there, a bit of weeding here, a pat of cedar mulch there, and check the pond. Wait patiently ‘til the sun ascends, then carefully follow its
rays as they cascade over creation. Poise the camera - and begin painting with the light.

My joy in watching and photographing birds, butterflies and wildlife that interact in this scenario knows no bounds. Witnessing the new beginning of each day is especially poignant when more of the years one has lived are now past than those remaining on the future tab. Knowing and accepting this reality tends to focus the mind.

Ever aware of the devastating effects of human-made pollution contributing to climate change, we established our property as a legally protected environment for wildlife habitat, including bees, butterflies and other pollinators, as well as a myriad of other species, trees and plants that share our beautiful intact deciduous forest. From time to time, we work with wildlife experts, foresters, entomologists, and naturalists to encourage species and wildlife restoration. It is a work in progress.

One day, much to my surprise, a bumble bee with large orange balls flew by. After a bit of school-yard snickering, my curiosity gave way to a flurry of research.

We all know that honey comes from bees gathering pollen and nectar from plants. But how do these little critters actually do what they do? To better understand, we need to take a closer look at those lovely, little bee legs, all three pairs of them. Imagine for a moment what it’s like to be a bee. So there you are, flying and hovering in mid-air, flitting about from flower to flower, dislodging and licking pollen off the anther of the flower.

Sometimes you’re just 'rollin’ in the pollen' for the sheer joy of it all. You look down and realize you’ve got it all over yourself. If you’re a squash bee, you are also in a drunken stupor, having spent the night trapped inside the long pouch of the squash flower before making a slit and heading home to the hive.

Moving the pollen to where it needs to be involves all three sets of bees legs. First, the bee removes wet pollen from its antenna, head and mouth using its forelegs. The forelegs then pass the pollen to the middle set of legs. These middle legs then comb more pollen from the underside of the bee's sweet wee chest, and add it to the batch accumulating.

So far, so good? I think that the evolutionary 'pièce de résistance' is found in the design of the rear legs. The lower rear leg on a bee is called a tibia. Think of your calf. The bee’s tibia is flat, shiny, and somewhat convex and is surrounded by stiff hairs. This area forms a pollen basket. Workers and Queen bees have a pollen basked located on the outside of each rear leg. Next, on the lower end of the tibia is a comb-like structure. Think of your ankle - with a rake sticking out of it. Lastly, moving further down is the metatarsus, which is the press. Think of your heel - flattening things. The comb and this press work together, sort of like levers.

The middle legs continue to pass the pollen down to the rear legs. The bee manipulates the comb and press levers by rubbing her hind legs together. The rake of the opposite leg forces the sticky pollen into the bottom part of the basket. As the bee continues to visit flowers, each new batch of pollen she gathers is pressed with the heel onto the bottom of the basket, pushing the previous batches further further up. When the pollen basket is full, it will bulge with upwards of one million grains of pollen.
Voila – the large, orange balls on my bumble bee are created. Mystery solved!

Do you know it takes a honey bee about an hour to collect one pellet – which is about one full pollen basket?  For even greater perspective, a teaspoon of bee pollen contains about 1200 of these pellets! Nutritionally-speaking, bee pollen is a complete protein and contains more protein proportionately than meat or fish. It also contains all 22 amino acids that the human body needs but cannot produce for itself. If consuming a bee pollen supplement, try to ponder the effort it took for bees to produce this amazing food.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share another strange coincidence that happened during this journey of discovery. I was led … no … I stumbled into becoming a novice bee-keeper. Knowing my fascination with anything that flies, my good friends had given me a butterfly house. I painted it lilac and set it out in the garden by the pond. I would check and re-check it, but nary a cocoon did I find hibernating there in the first year. So early this spring, I decided to move it over a bit. I lifted the lid - and came face-to-buzz with the Queen bee and her minions. I don’t know who acted first or quickest, but I dropped the lid sideways and well … this well-known bee-keeper sign says it all.

My butterfly house is now a hive full of happy bees. And how did I get that lid back on without annoying them further? Picture this. A no longer curious but rather terrified woman crawling on her stomach across the porch floor with long BBQ tongs in hand, reaching through the space between the wooden railings, and carefully nudging the edge of the lid back in place. I will consult with a local bee-keeper to prepare the hive for the coming winter.

The odd person asks me from time-to-time if I ever get bored living in the country. When I have finished laughing, an insightful quotation comes to mind. 

"Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone, or weary of life."   Rachel Carson

(A special thank you for advice on this post goes to and Google+ Master Bee-Keeper Zach Dunham)

Sunday, 31 May 2015

First Puppy Training Class for our Kuvasz

Our beautiful Bella Layna went from 12 to 35 pounds by the time she was 15 weeks. As a young,
growing puppy, she loved to wrestle and tackle anything that moved. Since I was the only one
around, I was considered target practice. With the big brown eyes of an angel, she would calmly await my arrival around any corner - and then pounce. I later learned that as a guardian dog, the first instinctive move of a Kuvasz was not to bite, but to use the strength and power of their weight and shoulders to knock a predator off-kilter, and back behind a safety perimeter.

But that first summer, I was just trying to figure her out, often muttering to myself that my Bichon Frise never tried to take me down. I reasoned that Layna obviously lived in a rich puppy fantasy world, not unlike a child. I remember my own young son always wanting to wrestle too. He used to claim that he was the strongest. Of course being the sly female that I was, I would always agree with him. One day, when he was about three-years-old and hollering his battle cry of: ‘I am the strongest mommy’, I quickly replied, “Yes dear, but smell isn’t everything”. Hearing this, he collapsed on the floor in gales of laughter. Together we shared one of those spontaneous moments of joy over silly humour that easily rivalled a Monty Python skit. Those times of joy are indelibly etched in my memory to this day.

But back to the dog. I wondered whether Layna pretended that I was some great predator about to go
after her toy chicken – and must be taken down. Lightbulb – it's dominance behaviour – and time for puppy training! I registered her at the local dog training facility, and was told that she was the youngest one of the group, but she would eventually learn by watching the older puppies. Of course, as I had registered her over the telephone, the trainers had not actually seen her. When we walked into the training room, there was a bit of a stunned silence. It was evident that while Layna was the youngest, she was by far the biggest puppy in the class. The following is an account of her first day in puppy training class.

Puppy Training Room Setting:

Picture a large training room with easy-to-clean floors. A selection of different types of dogs from retrievers, mutts, to golden doodles to whippets, all smaller than Layna, except for maybe Coco, the chocolate Lab. Owners are asked to form into a large circle. Picture myriad dogs wriggling and writhing about - all doing various imitations of ‘get me outta here’.

Scene 1: The Main Actors

Coco: the chocolate Lab straining at his leash throughout the class, eyes fixated solely on Layna.

Layna: standing coolly off to my right side, about ten feet away from the panting Lab. Despite his antics, she doesn’t even give him a passing glance, and stares at the instructor.

The Instructor: a good dominatrix teacher, tiny as a Yorky herself, but with an authoritative voice that catches the dogs’ attentions.

Scene 2: Surveying The Room

The Instructor teaches about clicking and reward method, and chooses to demonstrate with every dog in the class, except Layna. Is it because of Layna’s sharp, puppy teeth? The teacher cryptically states that she wants to be successful in her demonstrations.  Huumm... Layna sits quietly, intently watching
all the other dogs. At times, she appears to sleep at my feet, perhaps giving rise to the inaccurate assumption that she is calm.

Scene 3: Clicker Means Treats

With the help of a few cookies, Layna completes an array of first class challenges. She likes the clicker as it is now associated with a treat.

The class comes to an end, and owners and puppies file out of the area, except for me and the couple with the chocolate Lab. Coco is still straining on his leash, eyes focussed on Layna as we approach the exit gate. The woman leaves Coco with her partner, and comes over to us. She asks about what breed is Layna, and comments that she is so very white and fluffy. ‘Yes, she’s a real puff girl,’ I replied, ‘but as a Kuvasz, Layna is classified as a guardian breed’. The woman paused for a moment and said, ‘Well, she sure doesn’t seem like a guardian breed as she didn’t even bark during class!’ Meanwhile, in the background, Coco is now hyper-ventilating, straining to join his owner. So I casually suggest that she let her Lab off the leash, and we let the two dogs play.

Scene 4: Chocolate Meets Vanilla

Leashes off, Coco bounds quickly toward us and heads for Layna. In one swift move, Layna grabs him by the ruff at his throat, flips him over and pins him onto his back on the floor. Coco submits, but Layna is not yet finished with him. She quickly straddles him and with her front paws, pins each of Coco’s shoulders to the floor. Next, she goes nose-to-nose with the hapless Lab, and pins his head to the floor. Then, with an almost a visible smile on her lips, her tail slowly begins to wag. My little lady then turns around 180 degrees, and rubs her butt in his face. Coco’s pickle emerges as he lays blissfully on the floor. A quick jump off and Layna walks away to her stunned owner, who quickly gives her a cookie, without using the clicker.

Coco-puff that! 

Thus ends Layna's first puppy training class. No doubt, somewhere in the County, a chocolate Lab anxiously awaits for his next training class!

Today, our trained guardian of Blue Maples, Bella Layna rests peacefully on her two-seater couch. She may still give the illusion of calmness - but is watching for the squirrel that tries to steal seed from the bird-feeder. Whatever you do if you visit, call ahead. And please don't mention the 's' word in her presence.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

A Bumblebee Caressing a Flower

It was a good day for our wild pollinators here at Blue Maples. The sun was shining and the flowers are blooming profusely. The wild honey bees and bumblebees were in ecstasy as they dove into these pollen-laden treasure troves. One could almost sense their joy as they fulfilled their ‘raison d’etre’.

Fulfillment of the natural design brings harmony across the web of life. If only we humans were more in tune with the natural design.

I love science, especially the natural sciences. But it seems the more advances in science and technology, the more we are altering this interconnectedness of all things - and not always for the better. As you have no doubt heard by now, the majority of food crops like soybean, corn, canola, and sunflower seeds planted in the US are coated with neo-nicotinoid pesticides. These chemicals travel through the plants and effectively kill insects that eat their roots and leaves. But neo-nicotinoids are powerful neurotoxins, and are also decimating populations of non-targetted insects, namely all pollinators such as bees and butterflies.

 Reverence over profit should be a core value. As stewards of Nature, can we collectively meet our ‘raison d’etre’?

Or will we continue down the path of mutually-assured destruction as illustrated by this little bee 
cartoon posted by an insightful harbinger of pending doom from YouTube, MrPeakCrackers.

Now that my Facebook and Google+ links are better established, I will return to Blogging more regularly with stories of natural happenings, hopefully of interest to us all.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Phooey to the Pecking Order

My dog Layna noticed them first while she was out for her morning constitutional. I came outside to find her standing upright on her hind legs, no mean feat for a 140 pound canine. Her head was poised upwards, gazing over the garage roof toward the Eastern forest. High up in the towering maple trees, were four wild turkeys, comfortably roosting. They slept there all summer, leaving their nightly perch as the light of dawn hit the tree ridge. And then, ever so gracefully, they would glide down to the valley below. 

About this same time, a troupe of twenty wild turkeys began marching single file up the road in front of our property, continuing  down the hill and out of sight. Have you ever watched a precision drill team of soldiers marching? Well comparatively speaking, a drill team of humans had nothing over these turkeys. Slightly stooped forward, the lead male walked with its chest puffed out, followed by a succession of smaller males, hens and younger turkeys. What was fascinating was the movement of the lead male. With an undulating side-to-side hip roll, and a rhythm that would rival a southern blues man, he would proudly marched his aligned troupe past us daily. In anticipation of this new ritual, Layna and I began to sit on the front porch, waiting for the troupe to round the bend in the road. (In case you are wondering, yes, I taught my Kuvasz not to bark at wild turkeys, in exchange I might add, for many dog cookies.)

One morning, the marching parade came to a sudden halt as the lead turkey stopped at the base of our driveway, about 100 feet from the porch. A slight moment of hesitation seemed to hang in the air like a Salvador Dali clock. The line behind him started to wiggle and jiggle as if made of a long roll of jelly turkeys. Maybe in cruising past our place, they had observed other birds feeding at the maple tree in the yard? Whatever the trigger, suddenly, with a burst of chaotic energy and feathers flying, they all raced helter-skelter down the driveway toward the feeding tree. 

Phooey to the Pecking Order – it was every wild turkey for itself. Road runner style!

Many of my friends call Blue Maples a “Bird and Breakfast”. Like a drive-through restaurant for wildlife, I place seed out at the feeding tree daily for our 48 mourning doves, 37 Blue Jays, countless red-wing blackbirds and grackles, a smattering of chickadees and juncos, a few, lovely red cardinals, two ravens, five annoying squirrels, and six kamikaze chipmunks. The numbers vary with the season. Finches, pine siskins, hummingbirds, orioles, robins, warblers, rose and yellow grosbeaks feed in another designated section of the forest restaurant. But that morning, my diversified bird clientele were not prepared for this tumultuous tsunami of copper-hued feathers barreling down the driveway toward them. I am sad to report that all regular bird clientele flew madly off in all directions.

Three distinct thoughts entered my mind simultaneously. Thought number one. Had the wild turkey flock been casing my joint for the past week, pretending to be uninterested in the feeders - while stealthily figuring out how to take Rome?  Thought number two. Ever seen a stand-off between squirrels and turkeys? The squirrels ran about hyper-ventilating in ever-increasing circles around the tree, trying their best to agitate the flock away from the seed – to no avail. Finally, something had put squirrels in their place. Thought number three. Watching the disintegration of the pecking order brought a delicious sense of inner delight to me, as I had recently retired from thirty years in the bureaucracy. Timing can be so sublime.

The wild turkeys are now part of our regular clientele, albeit we had to develop a slightly revised training program to fit them into our diversified clientele. I learned to imitate their major calls, so they would come toward me when I approached. My father used to call me a turkey - maybe he was on to something. They preen, they play, they joist on our front yard every year. Sometimes they chase each other with a left leg over right leg side-step that must have spawned the turkey trot – a dance popular in the fifties. They are tribal with rituals - and appear to genuinely care for members of their own.

As in many areas across North America, wild turkeys were extinct in Ontario for nearly a century due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. As reported by National Geographic, the loss of habitat was most challenging as wild turkeys thrive in areas that are part deciduous forest and part grassland. When forests are cut down, brood cover, a major breeding requirement is lost. Brood cover is the wooded area that provides overhead protection and easy ground movement for young turkeys or baby poults.

For the past 25 years, dedicated partnerships between conservationists and government has resulted in the successful restoration of wild turkeys to most of their former range in Ontario. These efforts have led to a mandatory course to hunt turkey and to regulated hunting.

Here in the natural forests of Blue Maples, we have witnessed their rites of passage and totally enjoy the sheer joy of their life energy. Take a peek at this minute or so movie of the strutting dominant Jake cruising his brood of hens for the upcoming breeding cycle.

A future blog post will feature this rather interesting breeding rite, as well as the exuberance of baby wild turkeys that come to the feeding tree, along with their watchful moms, Lilac and Goldie.