Speaking of Nature: A spa day for the hens


Published: 05-01-2023 7:14 PM

It was Wednesday afternoon of last week and I had just returned home from a long day at work. I spent most of the drive home pondering the topic of this week’s column and reflecting on just how tired and worn out I felt. By the time I pulled down my driveway I had a tentative idea for a column topic, but I wasn’t completely settled on it. As I climbed out of my car I happened to think about the notion of going to a spa and just relaxing. In that moment of exhaustion, a bit of pampering had great appeal.

I walked into the house, like I always do and headed over to my journal at the kitchen window. I recorded the details of the weather and then put out a fresh offering of seed for the birds. Then I went through the end-of-day process of changing into some comfortable clothes and preparing some sort of meal. But mostly, I just wanted to sit in the quiet of the house and do nothing in particular for a while, which I did.

I’m not quite sure how long I sat there in silence, but when I finally got up and walked toward the kitchen again I happened to look out the window and was utterly amazed by what I saw in my backyard. Turkeys! And they weren’t just passing through. No, these turkeys were actively involved in an activity that I had never personally witnessed in turkeys. All other possible column topics instantly melted away and I knew what I wanted to write about. Now I had to see if I could get the photos to back it all up.

My house is located on the side of a hill and it is steep enough to allow me to have a walk-out basement in the back of the house. About 100 yards down the hill, there is a place that I call the “flat spot” and this is basically the leach field for my septic system. It is the only unnaturally flat area in my yard (because of the nature of leach fields) and it is also the only place where very fine-grained sand can be found. As a result, this area is of particular interest to many different animals.

I first noticed that rabbits liked to scrape out little depressions in the sand where they could roll around and wallow in the sand. This is an important part of grooming because the sand and dust can dislodge parasites and absorb excess moisture and oils. I suppose the human equivalent would be our use of talcum powder, which is a mineral found in rocks that we humans like to grind up into a powder and put on our skin.

Anyway, I’ve seen the rabbits rolling around in the sand for years and I have also noticed that small birds will occasionally use one of these wallows for the same thing. But on this particular afternoon I counted four female turkeys that were all kicking, scratching and flapping in the sand. They must have found one of the rabbit wallows and decided to enlarge it, which was easy for them to do with their powerful legs, feet and claws. But then some original excavation was done and each female eventually had her own dust bath going. At one point I saw more sand than I saw feathers and I just laughed.

I also noticed that there were two males (also known as “Toms”) that were standing off to one side. One of them went into the briefest spasm of his courtship display, but it only lasted for a moment because I think he realized that the hens were clearly ignoring him as they relished in their ablutions of their spa day. My challenge was to somehow step out onto my deck and snap a couple of photos before my presence was detected. As a general rule, wild turkeys are very alert and are not comfortable around humans, and for good reason.

I got myself into position without incident, but the first click of the camera’s shutter gave me away and the party ended shortly thereafter. The lighting wasn’t great (too much direct sunlight) and the angle of the light was not ideal (coming from the side, rather than from behind me), but I did manage to get one photo that showed all four hens in the same frame with one of them sitting on the ground in her sand bath.

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The male turkeys never really presented themselves in any spot that was photo friendly, but I would have to declare myself successful in recording the gathering of the small flock. It is common enough for me to hear the Tom turkeys gobbling in the mornings and there have been other times when individual females will visit my feeders. There was even a moment in time when a turkey was visiting my deck to eat birdseed a couple years ago, but I have never seen a group of turkeys taking dust baths in the afternoon before. And I managed to get it on film!

As always, my suggestion to you is to simply keep your eyes open. Wild animals live their lives around us and often right in front of us if we happen to look out the window at just the right moment. You never know what you might see, so the thing is to keep looking. The weather is warming and that comfortable deck chair might soon be an option. Grab a book and sit quietly for a while. You might see something wonderful.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.