Gobblers on parade

Vigorous birdsong has been punctuating this weirdly premature Minnesota springtime. Thursday was mild and rain-washed on the Minnesota Trail, and the bird-feeding station fluttered with activity. Besides the usual woodpeckers and chickadees pecking at the feeders, our occasional flock of wild turkeys made a dramatic, and slightly goofy, appearance.

The flock numbered nearly a dozen, and their behavior had me chuckling. I’m taking a social psychology class this semester, and I’ve started seeing a huge chunk of animal behavior — human and otherwise — in terms of “social proof,” or following the herd. Within this turkey group, four males, or gobblers, had formed two pairs. One pair had its tail feathers fanned and was strutting slowly around in lockstep, like British royalty at a formal event. The other pair (together at right) also strolled, but with tail feathers modestly down. Several females, drably plumaged by comparison, took quick steps around the exhibit, heads down, pecking and clucking, seemingly oblivious to the parading males or each other. Eventually the two more modest males gave up on their attention-attracting attempts and strolled off down the zoo service road behind the feeding area, side by side, still in lockstep, heads held high. It gave me a whole new appreciation of the term “wing man.”

The National Wild Turkey Federation has a great Web page comparing gobblers to hens, detailing the several varieties of wild turkey (Minnesota’s is “Eastern”) and deconstructing their physicality, including the fleshy parts attached to the head (carbuncles) and the beak (snood). Males’ heads may be red, white and/or blue, while females’ grayish heads and earth-tone feathers help them blend into the ground while nesting, just like the well-camouflaged hen above.

Whenever wild turkeys appear at the feeding station, it’s always great fun to see guests’ surprise when we tell them the zoo doesn’t own or control these big birds. Even before the 2007 Minnesota Trail renovation and the feeding station’s creation, wild turkeys would just show up and stake out a vacant corner space between two official exhibits, as if to say: Well, this area is meant for wild animals that live in Minnesota … right?

The zoo even has a “bench talk” for these fly-by-night drop-ins, and when I saw last week’s flock, I brought out these feathers as talking points. (I like to tell guests that the turkeys aren’t full-time residents but “volunteers,” much like myself.) They’re not the zoo’s most exotic inhabitants, but the Minnesota DNR describes their comeback after restoration efforts — much like their more elegant cousin the trumpeter swan — and reminds us that the wild turkey nearly became our national bird before the bald eagle claimed that crown. And unlike most creatures you’ll see at the zoo, it’s hard to predict when turkeys will grace us with their goofy presence.

Itchy and scratchy?

March came in like a … cougar, or puma if you prefer. I marked the first day of the month with two reptile demos — blue-tongued skink and hognose snake, a great combo that made it a red-letter day in zoo volunteering. And for the last half-hour of my zoo day, I had a nice long coffee-sipping conversation with Rae Nan Harmon, scheduling queen of the Thursday volunteers and “day captain” extraordinaire. I told her the funny thing I saw in the Minnesota Trail cougar exhibit, and she put it into context for me.

The cougar, or puma if you prefer, was striding around the exhibit scratching himself on every stick, branch and tree trunk in sight. When I told Rae Nan, a longtime cat owner, she explained to me that he was marking his territory with the scent glands in his cheeks.

I knew from my Big Binder of Zoo Facts that cougars mark their territory but do little to defend it. But I always assumed “marking” meant “peeing” — which it can, but not exclusively. Whatever his deeper instinct, this mountain lion just looked itchy to me, though, as if plagued by the dry skin that haunts so many of us this time of year. Especially in the photo below: Does he really have scent glands in his shoulders?

Even the largest cat species in North America (an average male cougar weighs around 200 pounds) has a surprising amount in common with the 15-pound felines that share our homes. The charming website A House Full of Cats has a great deal to say about scratching and marking. I can’t live with housecats myself, though; I’m far too allergic. They make me …  itchy.