Wildlife changes from one side of North America to the other. Not just the type of animals, but each species itself. Squirrels, for instance, are mostly grey on the east coast, but brown in the west. In places with large amounts of snowfall, they can even be white. The squirrel’s fur color and other physical attributes formed over thousands of years in response to their environment. Such adaptations are how animals survive. Yet some creatures defy the logic of Darwin, evolving in ways that seem worthless, or even detrimental to their existence, leaving us to wonder how they came to be.
The first time I contemplated this was at 45 mph with both brakes locked up on my motorcycle.
It was high summer in the northeast and I was trail riding alone through the Appalachian Mountains. Stagnant air and brutal humidity left the forest still and damp. For humans it was horrid; an oppression relieved only by the wind from movement. But for vegetation it was nirvana, and the forest was green in every direction. Above, a dense canopy of leaves allowed only narrow beams of sun to break through here and there. Along the horizon, tree upon tree fused into a tangle of limbs and foliage. Even the forest floor, which was brown from dead leaves of years past, showed efforts of green with bright sprouts poking though the detritus.
But as beautiful as the woods were, they were dangerous. Not by their nature, but by my own doing. I rode too fast. It was my way of getting the adrenaline surge other folks found in things like jumping, which never came easy for me on a motorcycle. Each time I tried, the takeoff was awkward, the landing harsh, and my time in the air spent haphazardly trying to correct errors. So instead, I would fly down trails barely making turns and narrowly avoiding trees. In the winter, this was fine, since the naked forest allowed a free view of the trail. But come summer, each turn became Pandora’s Box when blooming shrubs and fan-like leaves obscured what lay ahead.
At full throttle, I rounded a blind curve. There, in the middle of the path, was a turkey. It was a monster. A bird fat beyond measure wearing the blank look of an animal caught off guard.
In the moments the turkey stood frozen, I took in the flamboyant features that could only belong to a male. Its tail fanned out broadly in large black and brown feathers. Slender, zebra-like feathers hung from the haunches, which were long enough to tickle the ground when it moved. Massive lumps of plumage covered the turkey’s body giving it the look of a misshapen bean-bag chair. A tuft of feathers in the form of a canine tooth stuck from between two mounds on its chest. Its tiny feet and head were bright red and covered in knobby scales that hinted at the bird’s reptilian ancestry. And the crowning jewel: a silly piece of flesh dangling from its forehead that was surely nothing more than an ornament for enticing the opposite sex.
The rotund bird began running down the path in a crazed fit. Its body heaved in convulsive waves like John Candy trying to sprint. Slamming on both brakes, my wheels dug into the dirt and began what would be a long skid. The turkey spread its wings – which seemed oddly small for a bird of its carriage – and began flapping in a feverish madness. The turkey lifted from the ground only to fall back into a stumbling run. Then it lifted again. Then it fell again. And just as my front wheel neared the bird and a collision seemed inevitable, the turkey lurched from the ground and gained a few feet in altitude. The bird was barely ahead of me working with all its might to keep aloft when it happened: in the throes of exertion, the turkey released its bowels. A stream of wet crap sprayed my bike, then me, covering my chest and helmet.
It was Nature’s divine justice.
As a child, my family vacationed in Ocean City, New Jersey. For my parents, it was time to forget the burdens of life while lounging in sand. For my brother and me, it was an opportunity to troll the boardwalk and observe the fascinating inhabitants: girls with big hair frozen from a can of Aquanet, guys wearing wife beaters and gold chains, and over-tanned grandmothers smoking 120 menthol cigarettes. One day, we were all at the beach and I was feeding seagulls bread left over from lunch. At first, it was just a few birds, but the number grew as news of a free meal spread. My father watched quietly past his book – one of the paperback dime novels about spies and cold war espionage he bought by the garbage bag – until we were surrounded by a tornado of seagulls. He erupted in anger and told me to knock it the hell off. Just then, a hovering seagull crapped on him, soiling his book and chest hair. He threw down the paperback and let loose a stream of obscenities peppered with the Lord’s name in vain as he stood up. But before he could lay a hand on me, I defaulted to what every kid in such a predicament did: I ran like hell.
Having relieved itself on me, the turkey veered left from the trail and promptly flew into a dead spruce tree. The bird hit a thick limb and crumpled against its mass. The branch broke, and together it and the turkey fell towards the ground.
The sight made me question how a turkey could evolve into such an ecologically unfit creature. If a wolf came across the bird, surely it would win an easy meal. But there were no wolves left in those parts of Appalachia. Or coyotes. Or bear. Or mountain lions. Humans had eradicated such predators, and in their absence the turkeys became overindulged and complacent. This split-second conjecture would be upheld seventeen years later when one afternoon my dog Hank and I were hiking in California. We came upon a rocky creek in the middle of spring runoff and he bolted ahead towards a group of turkeys foraging on the forest floor. Before he could get near them, the four birds – two males and two females – flew to the top of an old oak tree. They were lean and took to flight with acrobatic grace, flying to heights that would have caused the east coast turkey to suffer a heart attack. The difference between the birds was vexing, but clarified later on our hike when we came upon a coyote and her pups. They were in an adjacent field inspecting the grass, and their presence reminded me that folks had fought to reintroduce the animals into the park. Hank sat by my side, his instincts having told him to give the coyotes space, and together we watched them from a distance. The coyote was teaching the pups to hunt.
Against all odds, the turkey leveled out, crested a ridge, then dropped from sight. With the bird gone, my attention returned to impending doom.
During the long skid to avoid hitting the bird, my motorcycle had remained on the trail for some time. But now it was in the trees, and with the smooth trail gone the front wheel caught a deep rut and stuck, sending me over the handlebars. While in the air, I watched the forest go by until a young tree came into view with a trunk no wider than two inches. It was bright and free from the bark scars older trees accumulate over time. The tree’s orientation changed from vertical to horizontal as my body rolled through the air, until finally the trunk aligned perfectly with the eyeport of my helmet.
The last thing I saw as my body hit the ground was that trunk entering my helmet and smashing the bridge of my nose.
“Are you OK?” a voice asked though the darkness.
“Huh?” I replied.
“Are you OK? We found you and your bike laid out next to the trail.”
“I think so,” I said slowly getting to my feet.
Two men stood with their helmets off. Their bikes were leaned against trees.
The guy speaking changed his expression from concern to disgust. “Is that bird crap on you?” he asked, recognizing the soupy goo as avian.
“Turkey. It’s turkey crap.”
“Jesus Christ, boy! Did a turkey do that while you were knocked out?”
“How?” the man asked with wide eyes.
“That’s not an easy story.”
“Well, I gotta hear it.”
“Give me a second. My head’s still ringing.”
“Tell you what, son. Save it. You can tell us later. For now, why don’t you ride with us?”
We got on our bikes and started them without any more conversation.
But just before we left, the guy paused and lifted his nostrils in a sniffing motion, then leaned toward me and yelled over the running engines, “You stay in the rear!”