The greatest narratives involve the pursuit of the unattainable. While Captain Ahab had Moby Dick, Bwog daily editor David Iscoe has a more humble aim: Befriend the turkey that lives in Morningside Park. Here, he recounts his foray into the wild.
“Hey, what kind of bird is that?”
A man pushing a hand-truck down Morningside Avenue calls through the fence, staring up at the large bird walking slowly down the hill. “That’s a turkey,” I reply.
“Whose bird is it?”
“Nobody’s. It lives in the park.”
A turkey indeed. A wild turkey lives in Morningside Park, and I decided to get to know her more intimately.
Not this kind of Wild Turkey
According to Brad Taylor and Jacquie Connors of Friends of Morningside Park (founded by Columbia alum Tom Kiel in 1981) surprise is a common reaction for first time turkey-spotters, but locals have come to know and love the bird. The Friends informed me, however, that the current resident may not actually be the same one who lived in the park before she went missing in 2006; in fact, they are convinced she’s a different one, and refer to the pre-turkey-knapping bird as “the first turkey.”
“It’s hard to tell if it’s the same one, because they change with the seasons, sometimes getting fatter, sometimes thinner,” said Taylor, who explained that when “the first turkey” went missing, he eventually reported it to the park service.”They got the P.R. machine rolling,” he said, and brought back the turkey, whom they called “Hedda Gobbler,” the next day. Though the incident garnered publicity and did restore a turkey to the park, Hedda Gobbler is not a local name. One of park’s frequent visitors calls her “Missy,” a girl at the park has named her “Esmeralda,” and others just call her “the turkey.”
Whatever her name, the turkey certainly adds character to the park. Connors, who has taken several pictures of the turkey, has seen her in spots ranging from the mulch mounds near 122nd down to the pond between 114th and 113th, where she gets her water. She competes with squirrels and other birds for food, and, when dogs chase her, “She’ll fly right up into the trees,” where she sleeps. Her previous incarnation, when nesting chicks, used to take a different approach to threatening canines by actively chasing them away. “She was crazy when people got near her chicks,” Connors recalled. “All the dogs were scared of her.”
When I went to pay a visit to the current turkey, she exhibited somewhat tamer behavior. What does a turkey do all day in Morningside Park? It’s impossible to be completely sure, as I only logged her behavior for about an hour, but I compiled my findings in this scientific study, performed one bright and early Sunday morning:
12:45 PM: I enter the park. No sign of the turkey yet. Where could she be? I call, “Here, turkey turkey turkey,” loud enough to fetch the turkey if she’s nearby, but not loud enough for the other people in the park to hear me, at least not clearly.
12:58 PM: A rustling in the leaves – the turkey is found! She’s on the upper part of the park, inside the brown fence, around 117th street. She appears to be rooting around for some sort of food, and generally strutting, as is the wont of her kind.
1:03 PM: This turkey ain’t goin’ nowhere. I go down to get a beignet, some orange juice, and some French toast at a bakery at 119th and Frederick Douglass. The food is delicious. I consider having a… chicken sandwich for a late lunch.
1:12 PM: Walking back, I see the
turkey by the basketball court, near the road and outside the fenced area. That damn turkey gave me the slip! Keeping one eye on that evasive turkey, I go back to investigate the fence, and find her path of escape: a hole in the fence, across from 117th street.
1:23 PM: This turkey is taunting me, twice spreading out her wings and ruffling her feathers right after I put my camera away. The Wikipedia entry calling her species “very cunning” seems to have been based in fact. I give up and sit down on a rock to read about the tragic failure of the bolsheviks, keeping one wary eye on the American bird.
1:28 PM: My suspicions are well founded, as the bird has moved two trees down. Trees are her favorite feature of the park, as her food appears to be located near them. Her rate of 2.5 minutes per tree is approximately equal to the number of minutes the 1 train takes per station. The bird is a true New Yorker.
1:38 PM: Why did the turkey cross the road? Unlike the chicken, she is not interested in the other side. Instead, once she gets to the edge of the road, she turns and heads down the road in search of better things. Reaching the Hugo Newman school on 120th street, she stops briefly, and I am impressed with her passion for education. I am disappointed when she opts to play hooky and continues on her stroll.
1:40 PM: That turkey is really moving! She makes it to the intersection near 121st street in no time, and stops briefly, but settles on her final destination, a cluster of mulch mounds by the Canadian-flag-painted handball courts near the north end of the park. This appears to be turkey paradise. Esmeralda/Hedda Gobbler/the turkey finds ample bugs and seeds in the mulch mounds, and spends the next 15 minutes circling around them. I have to go to a meeting, so I end my journey and leave her in peace.
Hell of a bird.