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I first noticed her one fall evening. A shadow, a furtive presence, she was without shape at first, then I saw clearly that this was one big bird who’d come calling to my local park in downtown Toronto.
I was trepidatious, and compelled to find out more. Being so out of place, alone and, well, so large, she became more than a passing focus, she became an obsession. This was not your basted Butterball, this was a wild thing with considerable mojo.
What was Rose, an eastern American turkey, doing in the middle of Toronto? What did she want? I know that wild turkeys are considered messengers and teachers to southern Indigenous people. Their feathers are used in ceremony and the bird ranks high in its spiritual significance. I would have to wait and see.
About to retire and just a little lost for it, I fixated on what she might mean to me. Was she an old bird without purpose who chose to retire to a world without those pesky coyotes and stresses of everyday turkey life in the wild. Was she lost? I thought she may have been headed somewhere, following those old pathways that wild things know but are long forgotten by us. My house sits on the bank of a buried creek that runs audibly beneath 12 feet of infill. Was she following a primordial highway of waterways and old ravines down to the lake and beyond. I could not accept her visit was pure chance.
Rose was solitary. Notwithstanding being surrounded by four kinds of squirrels and once a well-groomed rat, she was very much alone. I am sure my empathy for her springs from a realization of the potential isolation that begets the golden years.
On the more fundamental level, I wondered what she could possibly be eating in this downtown park. I bought a huge bag of peanuts and started feeding her. She seemed grateful, coming to me in the early morning with an eerie cluck and chirp combination. She didn’t just walk, or trot as they do, but sort of glided toward me. As the winter progressed, the park became encased in ice. She not only coped with the ice, but she could manage the incredibly cold temperatures of the worst of Toronto winters. Every evening she would elevate herself into the trees. Her flight was a kind of slow motion dream sequence, threading her way through the tangle of branches to a selected limb. She would alight just right. Pure grace, a bird ballet. Once there, she would puff herself into a feathery ball, tuck her head into her wings, scrunch down covering her legs and wait out whatever the worst of winter could bring.
Others noticed her as well. I witnessed scores of passersby utterly enchanted by her presence. Curbing their dogs and smiling broadly, they would pass by seemingly uplifted by the moment. Everyone loved her.
And of those that loved her, nobody loved more than the children from the elementary school adjacent to the park. They are the ones that named her Rose. Whenever Rose was present many would gather, at a distance, wide-eyed and more than a little tenuous. Some would approach too closely for her comfort. With that, Rose would face them, flare her wings, ruffle her feathers, feign flight and the kids would take off, screaming away in delight. Had she chosen to really pursue them, she could get to over 40 kilometres an hour on the ground and 80 in flight. These kids wouldn’t have a chance. For a good many, this great bird was the only wild thing they may have encountered, and they were filled with wonder and enchantment for it.
Early in my relations with Rose, I called the City of Toronto. I wanted to know if they had some kind of turkey program, something supportive perhaps, maybe even humane removal to a safer place. They had nothing and instead recommended I call a pest control company. I was indignant. Rose was no pest and the thought of her being classed as such renewed my commitment to help her along. I believed this bird to be a gift from nature, the Creator, and if we would only listen, perhaps we could get some good advice.
Turkeys raised for food are nothing like Rose. The sad thing is that the commercial birds ceremoniously pardoned by the U.S. President every Thanksgiving usually die within the year. They are descendants of a Central American strain taken to Europe and returned much modified to our dinner table. Only a distant cousin to Rose they demonstrate the limits of our scientific ways.
Rose spent Christmas disguised as a squirrel’s nest about 40 feet up. At Thanksgiving, she was impossible to find. Smart girl.
She had, if she’ll pardon these words, tremendous pluck. Seeing her balled up in the tree braving the storms was inspiring, if a tad depressing. If she was the messenger, the message wasn’t that clear. Perhaps, she herself was the message. I will spare the reader my clichés and allow the use of your imagination. I am inclined toward environmental stewardship. How can you not when you see for yourself this tough beauty, moments away from Yonge Street, walking around like she owned the place.
Yet, I suppose she had no choice but to abide and, in that endured, and then spring came and she flew away. I was relieved to see her go and now I can picture Rose with her “Tom” and a nest of chicks that apparently act like adults 24 hours after birth. While I am not convinced she won’t be back, as she loved those peanuts, I felt I did a good thing to help her along. My bit for global warming if you stretch the thought.
So, why did everyone love Rose? I wasn’t the only friend she had. Others watched, reported, left food and fretted. Truly, she was no beauty with her snoop, wattle and multicoloured, wrinkly skin head. I think it’s because she gave a heartfelt message of hope to us who are worried about this natural world. Rose tells me we still have a chance. We are buoyed by her because she affirms the strength and resilience of nature. Thanks Rose.
Kenn Richard lives in Toronto.