Home on the Range

Room With a View

Home on the Range
PEXELS|Elias Tigiser
By Susan Hand Shetterly

Within these woods of tall white pines, firs, spruces, and some oaks and red maples, my house sits in a small clearing, a bright round bowl full of sunlight. The casement windows face south. I spend more time than I like to admit looking out them, drinking tea, pondering a paragraph or a chapter I’m working on, and because it is very quiet here, I see things: an ermine snatching up a vole from its snow tunnel; a doe shouldering through the heavy drifts to get to the apple tree; a bobcat adoze in the herb garden in high summer.

One of my favorite sights begins as a line of dark shapes in the woods moving towards the clearing. At first view, it’s a shadowy ghost march back in the dusk of the trees. But as it breaks into the light, it becomes glossy, beautiful birds — our neighborhood’s wild turkeys.

Four toms — for some reason, it’s been four in full breeding regalia most springs — gather in the clearing with slow dramatic tail fanning and staccato wing dragging. They’re rough jousters, but they also perform a bit of synchronized dancing in twos, stepping forward together in high display. The females join them. Then, one after another, a hen prostrates herself on the ground, inviting a male to clamber onto her back. Which he does, awkwardly, it seems to me.

One of my favorite sights begins as a line of dark shapes in the woods moving towards the clearing.

Eventually they disappear, except for one, a shy female who creeps out of the woods at high noon for a dust bath in the garden before she tiptoes to her nest again. I always hope that she’ll present her offspring when they hatch and dry off, but she never has.

Three large hens brought their brood of 15 into the clearing last summer. The young, who were about two weeks old, swarmed over everything as the hens uttered cautionary clucks. It was an especially hot afternoon, and the poults must have been rung out from a day of swarming, because the three dams took them to a bed of dry sphagnum, and the little ones plopped down at their feet and fell asleep. Just like that. Some with their wings spread wide. Some folded, with their heads tucked in their shoulder feathers. The hens stood guard, without distraction, as I stood at the window with my cup of tea.

Best of all, they returned at dusk, and did so for a number of nights. I watched first the hens take off running, spread and beat their wings, and lift up into the high branches of the pines, more than 30 feet above the ground. Then the little ones started, by twos and threes, popping into the air and heading straight toward their mothers, until there was one left. With the windows open, I could hear its frantic peeping and the guttural sounds of the hens that seemed to be coaxing it on, until it took a chance and flew. Then all was quiet, and all night they slept on branches right outside my bedroom windows, and at dawn, I found them up in the pines just beginning to stir.

It has taken years of work for biologists to bring back the peregrine falcon, the bald eagle, and the wild turkey. These birds occasionally grace my landscape now, returned to a changed environment that once belonged easily to them. And they make changes to what they find here. They are gifts from the people who don’t want to lose what’s wild, and they are proof that we, who have made deep incursions into the lives of others, sometimes choose to fix what is broken.

February 2020
February 2020 issue