A Conservation Effort Gone Awry?

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Wild turkeys are creating havoc in urban neighborhoods all over the country.

It’s not that they do anything weird or un-turkey-like. They peck. They scratch.  They dig. They climb trees.  They poop – chicken manure the size of golf balls!

The problem is that, in built up areas they peck and scratch at cars and roofs and outdoor furniture. Dig up vegetable gardens and flower beds. They climb into trees and munch on unripe fruit, drop the uneaten portions to the ground. They poop all over the place.

Also, wild turkeys are known to be aggressive towards people at times. For example, when they feel threatened or during mating season. Although such incidents are rare, these huge birds – weighing up to 20 or 30 pounds – can be intimidating as they strut around, usually in a flock of eight or ten. Fearsome.

This seemingly untenable situation – wild turkeys and humans coexisting – can be viewed as the legacy of a decision made almost a hundred years ago.

In the early years of the twentieth century the wild turkey, a favorite prey of game hunters, was on the verge of extinction. The U.S. Department of Fish and Game [Fish and Wildlife today], recognizing the economic potential in wild turkey hunting, decided to replenish the population of these birds within the United States.

Fast forward to the present. There are six million wild turkeys in the United States, and they can be found in every state of the union, save Alaska.

And the economic advantages appear to be solid. In California alone, with the twenty-five thousand game hunters in the state, revenue from wild turkey hunting has been estimated at twenty million dollars in a season.

This could be touted as the greatest act of conservation of the twentieth century, bringing about recreational and economic boon.

Except it appears there was a flaw in the program. When Fish and Game designed the repopulation of the wild turkey, they neglected to look down the road and take into consideration the possibility of disappearing habitat. Fire, logging, urban sprawl, these are some of the events that have contributed to the loss of habitat over the years, a condition that has sent the wild turkey searching for food amongst people.

And food they have found. Cat food. Bird seed. Fruits and vegetables. And, commonly, their own bowl of food offered by humans.

Despite all the warnings against feeding wild turkeys, that this invites them to take up residency and use the land as they wish, that it would cause them to lose their fear of humans, that if they do not receive their expected meal they could become aggressive, and that the best way to get rid of them is to hold back the food, despite all this information, we continue to feed them.


Because we enjoy them and want to keep them close. They are funny. They are audacious. They are beautiful, with their dark, bronze-green iridescent feathers shining in the sun. We are intrigued by the male, puffing himself up, his tail flared out.

We feed them because we crave connection to all wildlife. We feed them because contact across species strengthens us and expands our knowledge of who we are as living beings. Because having them nearby helps fill the separation we feel between ourselves and the natural world, and, as Dawn Starin wrote, for many, a flock of wild turkeys openly feeding on a lawn or strutting down a sidewalk offers a glimpse into the unknowable wild.

And we feed them because that’s what humans do.

POSTSCRIPT: Somewhere along the way you might come across the idea that after the Continental Congress of 1776 Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were asked to design a seal to represent the new country, and that Benjamin Franklin chose the turkey over the bald eagle.

This is not true. The story goes as follows:

In January of 1784, two years after the Great Seal of the United States was finally approved, with the bald eagle as its symbol, Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter, Sarah, in which he said,

For my part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our County. He is a Bird of bad moral Character.  He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and take it from him.

 I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America….He is besides,……..a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

The story began to circulate in the newspapers around America, and the idea that Franklin proposed the turkey in lieu of the eagle has somehow endured.

On November 24, 1962, for its Thanksgiving issue, the New Yorker magazine ran a cover photo of a United States seal with a turkey.

Image result for new yorker magazine cover november 24 1962



Collateral Damage

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

A hunter shoots a deer, guts it and takes the useful parts. The rest remains.

A farmer shoots a coyote that is decimating his flock of sheep. The carcass stays where it goes down.

A hunter wounds a rabbit, who dashes under a tangle of bushes and succumbs. His body lies undetected by the hunter.

Whether they are aware or not, the farmer and the hunters have left food behind for wildlife, notably raptors, which are birds such as hawks, falcons, eagles, condors and vultures. These ‘birds of prey,’ aside from being hunters in their own right, also feed on the flesh of the dead animals.

Also, possibly unbeknownst to the farmer and the hunters, if lead-based bullets are used, the leavings potentially could cause harm to the birds, could actually kill them if lead bullets, shot or fragments are ingested with the carrion.

It’s not uncommon for this unintentional damage to raptors to occur. A couple of stats: The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota reported that in the last twenty-four years over 500 eagles that had been admitted to their clinic either died or had to be euthanized due to lead poisoning. The Center for Biodiversity has reported 90% of the condors of California have suffered lead poisoning at least once and that 85% of the 120 injured eagles taken in by the Minnesota Raptor Center in 2011 had elevated blood lead levels.

It’s not uncommon, either, for intense efforts at rehabilitation to result in the healed birds being returned to the wild.

Why the heroic measures to save these animals? It’s not only that raptors are startlingly beautiful and powerful, that the speed and agility with which they soar and dart and dive fill you with awe.  It’s not only that these birds have evoked religious inspiration, and have been the subject of legends and myths.

It’s because, as predators, raptors play a major role in helping maintain the balance among all the members of a habitat. As part of the top of the food chain, they help keep the population of smaller, more prolific reproducers, like mice, from overrunning their neighborhood and outcompeting other species for limited food supplies.

So, why has there been no law to protect raptors by banning the use of lead bullets? After all, the danger of lead exposure has been known for some time. Lead has been removed from paint and from gasoline. But establishing laws regarding lead use in bullets for hunting has not been so straightforward. It has been an ongoing process for over twenty years and is fraught with controversy.

Where? Under what conditions? Which targets? These are all questions that have been bandied about in regards to passing legislation on the use of lead bullets.

Perhaps the increasing awareness of the unhealthy situation of the endangered raptors will energize the move to outlawing lead bullets for big and small game once and for all. Although just recently this administration has reversed a ban on lead ammunition in U.S. wildlife reserves.

Oh, well.

Hawk Species at Hawk Mountain | Hawk Mountain Sanctuary: Raptor Conservation, Education, Observation & Research














My Idea, Mr. Muir: Part 3


Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Part 3: If one pine were placed in a town square, what admiration it would excite! Yet who is conscious of the pine-tree multitudes in the free woods, though open to everybody.  (John Muir. John of the Mountains, the Unpublished Journals of John Muir, p. 220)

John Muir was facing a challenge – in fact several challenges – in 1875 when he wrote those words.

He had been living in Oakland and was gaining respect as a naturalist and scientist through his many published articles about Nature. But it was early in his development as the conservation activist he would become, the one who would found the Sierra Club and serve as its president for twenty years. The one who would lobby successfully for the establishment of Yosemite as a national park and influence the direction of conservation and preservation legislation for years to come.

During that early period, despite his successes, Muir had been languishing in the city in what he described in a letter to Mrs. Ezra Carr as that strange Oakland epoch.

When I first came down to the city from my mountain home, he wrote in his journal, I began to wither, and wish instinctively for the vital woods and high sky. Yet I lingered month after month, plodding at duty. (John of the Mountains: the Unpublished Journals of John Muir, p. 192).

A major challenge for Muir was how to make a living and not lose himself. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get into the mountains to learn the news.

Besides magazine writing, Muir held many odd jobs that helped get him through this early period. The solution to his financial woes came after his marriage in 1880 when he went into partnership with his father-in-law and spent ten years managing their large and profitable fruit ranch.

A second dilemma for Muir was how to hold on to himself as a writer. As Michael P. Cohen pointed out, …working in and through a medium, with its own conventions, has a way of shaping the mind of the creator…..By falling into the occupation of a popular writer, [Muir] could endanger the very message he had a sacred mission to convey (The Pathless Way: Muir and American Wilderness, p. 132).

In other words, Muir was challenged, perhaps to rein in his effusiveness, to temper his tendency to anthropomorphize nature or to refer to trees and rocks, and all of nature as communicators with God, lest he offend, or simply turn off, his readers. In the end, Cohen writes, Muir wished to be as wild and immoderate as Nature. In practice, he had to compromise.

In an ironic turn of events, Muir would be faced with another challenge, the job of confronting what always had been a source of pleasure for him; efficient machinery. Muir was an inventor. He was ingenious at devising time-saving machines. This was the age of industrialization and urbanization, which championed efficiency and ingenuity, but which also brought with it pollution and weariness and social ills.

I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found. If the death exhalations that brood the broad towns in which we so fondly compact ourselves were made visible, we should flee as from a plague. All are more or less sick; there is not a perfectly sane man in San Francisco. (John of the Mountains, p. 191).

Muir understood the connection between health and wellbeing and experiences in Nature, and he  could be very clever about tying this relationship to the need for preservation and conservation.

As he does in this quote from Our National Parks, Chapter 1 (1901)…

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity and that mountains, parks, and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains for life.





My Idea, Mr. Muir: Part 2

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The year is 1861.

John Muir is 23 years old. He is attending the University of Wisconsin, where he will develop an interest in botany.

In California, photographer Carleton Watkins, a contemporary of Muir, straps his 40-pound camera and accompanying paraphernalia to his mules and ventures into Yosemite Valley.

At some point Muir and Watkins will meet and become friends, connected by their love of Yosemite, their avid environmentalism, and photography.

Why Yosemite? Watkins will publish a book of his Yosemite photos that will prompt President Abraham Lincoln to pass a law designating Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove as a California state park.

Muir, as his career develops, will direct much of his advocacy towards establishing Yosemite as a national park.

Why photography? Watkins will create a portrait of Muir. Muir will walk the photographic route of Watkins book.

           Portrait of John Muir (c. 1875) by Carleton Watkins

Which brings me to part 2 Muir’s quote.

Part 2: Who reports and works the ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors – – the clothes she wears – of her birds, her beasts, her live-stock? (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, pp. 220-221).

By asking these questions, was Muir commenting on the state of wilderness photography in 1875?

While Watkins was able to record great detail in his landscape photographs, clouds, and any sky detail, are conspicuously missing from his work.

This seems typical of photographs of this era, which hints at a limitation in the capabilities of the cameras at that time.

Example:  Photo taken by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904)

And then there is Muir’s question about Nature’s colors.

Color photography was in an experimental phase in 1875 when Muir wrote those words. Techniques had not yet evolved that could reliably capture and preserve color in a photograph.

For Muir, nature’s colors, all the tones nameless and numberless, as he once described them when writing about the Grand Canyon, (John of the Mountains, p. 363) were essential to the authentic wilderness experience. (I wonder how he would respond to the photos of Ansel Adams.)

And then there was Muir the inventor. In addition to his gift as chronicler of nature, Muir was endowed with mechanical prowess and imagination. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that he would lament the lack of technological advancements in photography that could have opened up the possibilities for recording clouds and displaying Nature’s colors.

When I think of Muir’s desire for technological advancement, however, I think of the expression, be careful what you wish for.

Now that we have the technical skill to capture images of nature in a way that Muir might possibly never have imagined, there is the danger of the virtual experience replacing the natural, ironically, deepening our disconnection from nature.  But that would be the subject of a future blog.

In the meantime, watch this film of starling murmuration (thank you Joe Frank) and ask yourself, does this make you want to experience this live, or is this enough.  How do you think Muir would respond to this?  (Here’s some information about murmuration.)