Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Blakeman concedes: Well, perhaps it is "wild." Now on to woodchucks

In response to letters recounting tales of tame, friendly wild turkeys in various parts of the country, John Blakeman wrote back:


Wouldn't it be curious to know what Benjamin Franklin would have thought about the turkey in Central Park? Franklin argued strongly against the bald eagle as our national symbol because the big fish eagle was commonly seen attacking fish-carrying ospreys and stealing their prey -- not an admirable trait our Mr. Franklin argued. Instead, Franklin nominated the turkey, a quintessential and uniquely American bird (although sadly misnamed).

I will not altogether discount the possibility that the CP turkey is something of a "wild" bird. The interesting accounts of urban and people-tolerating turkeys in other areas are noteworthy and must be considered. These people aren't describing pen-raised or domesticated turkeys. Obviously, in certain circumstances wild turkeys do adapt to the presence of humans and urban environments. I was not aware of any of this. The turkeys I encounter out here in rural Ohio are still cautious denizens of wild lands, wary of the approach of any human at several hundred yards. The turkeys I encounter are truly wild, behaving in their natural habitats as turkeys have for centuries. That makes finding and observing one here truly special. Seeing photos of one strutting along with joggers in Central Park somewhat diminishes the experience, if not the wildness or authenticity of the bird itself. (The bird seems to have no naturally-wild self respect, for whatever reason.)

So, for the sake of argument and on the basis of the good evidence here, let's presume for the nonce that the bird is derived from wild parents. As a field biologist I still wonder how and why the bird got itself first on to Manhattan, and then many blocks down the urban canyons to Central Park. Was all of that "natural," or were humans somehow directly involved?

Let's see if a few more turn up. Will a Central Park turkey flock come to pass? What could be next? How about an otter in one or more of the ponds? A beaver? A woodchuck or muskrat could be interesting. And why not a real skunk?

The best, of course, would be a bald eagle's nest -- not an impossibility. Here in Erie County, Ohio, we had a bald eagle build a nest in a tree in a suburban back yard and produce three eaglets Believe it or not (we have photos to prove it), the three eaglets flew off the nest and began to jump up and down on a backyard trampoline -- for fun.
Wildlife across America is adapting to humans and urban environments. The turkey in Central Park might be just another chapter in this developing story. I thank everyone for their helpful observations and comments.

--John A. Blakeman

I wrote back:

In regard to your comment "A woodchuck or muskrat could be interesting."

Woodchucks were quite common in Central Park until about 7 or 8 years ago. There were always three or four in the various woodlands. Then they disappeared. The last one I saw lived behind the zoo. A well known CP character named Sister Marlene used to come to a certain nearby spot every afternoon with a bag of goodies. She'd lay out a plate and then make little kissing noises. The woodchuck would come immediately from wherever he'd been waiting, kiss her on the nose and then eat his tidbits from the plate. Am I to understand that your Ohio woodchucks act differently?


John Blakeman answered my woodchuck note:

Yes, like our wild turkeys, Ohio woodchucks maintain a wild self-respect. They are sometimes known as "whistle pigs," for the whistling warning sound they give to each other when a human or other threat approaches at distance. No, they don't take food from anyone's nose, hands, or from anyone close by. They remain truly wild.
The "wildlife" of Central Park continues to amaze. You have many of the same species as we have in our Ohio "wild," but the behaviors are markedly different, even distorted or warped (at least as field biologists would think).
But for Manhattan, these behavioral changes somehow work. Central Park is an unstudied laboratory of wildlife behavior and adaptation. As I was forced to do with Pale Male and the CP red-tailed hawks, field biologists must rethink what they know about other wild species' incursions into big city centers. None of this would have been predicted by those of us who think we know wild species.
Who knows what's next.
--John A. Blakeman

PS from Marie

Since it's my website I get the final word:


By reiterating that your Ohio critters are "truly wild" and that they have "self respect," you are implying that our Central Park wildlife, or rather our Central Park "wildlife" [to use your eloquent quotation marks,] are neither truly wild nor self respecting. Meanwhile, we don't feel at all judgmental about your Ohio critters, nor look down on them in any way, in spite of the fact that they don't eat off plates or nest on billionaire buildings without paying rent.