Capitol Building

For this Thanksgiving season, I have a story about some special summer visitors to our backyard not far from the statehouse.

They are Betsy and her two children.

While just turkeys, they had a profound impact on my wife and I.

Lori named her Betsy because she reminded us of colonial times when Benjamin Franklin described the turkey as “a much more respectable Bird” than the bald eagle.

Franklin capitalized “Bird” in his letter.

As Betsy and her chicks, properly termed poults, continued their visits to our backyard, we began to appreciate Franklin’s portrayal.

Betsy is one of the most majestic, nearly fearless and proud birds we’ve seen.

Before getting to know Betsy, I thought of turkeys as just targets for hunters or something for me to smoke on Thanksgiving.

But from Betsy’s regular appearances, I realized why Franklin was so impressed with these birds.

Betsy was attracted to our backyard by the corn kernels laying on the ground from a couple of squirrel corn feeders.

Squirrels eat only the best part of the corn kernel and then drop to the ground piles of partially eaten kernels.

By way of background, we’ve got a long history with squirrels.

We even raised two abandoned baby squirrels, transitioning them back into the wild.

One of those squirrels was a surprise visitor to Missouri’s Senate.

But that’s a story for another column.

Anyway, for most of the summer, Betsy would appear with her two poults once or twice a day at nearly predictable times.

She became confident to approach the backyard patio when I offered a cob of uneaten corn.

I have no doubt Betsy would have pecked the corn cob in my hand.

But as a creature of the wild, I did not want her to become too comfortable with humans.

So I’d leave the cob in the grass.

Initially, her poults were not so brave.

They restricted themselves to the partially eaten corn kernels under the corn feeders further away from the patio.

As her poults grew to near-adult turkeys, their relationship with Betsy began to change.

They eventually joined Betsy in her corn-cob feast.

At first, they joined Betsy only if the cob was far enough away from the patio and only after Betsy had spent time pecking away.

Later, they immediately would go to the corn cob when they entered our yard, regardless of its distance from the patio.

Finally, rather than Betsy deciding when it was time to depart, the two poults made the decision, with Betsy following behind.

Because the poults remained wary of humans, that made their visits to our backyard briefer.

Then, in late summer, their daily visits ceased.

While regretting her departure, we understood the seasonal patterns of wildlife.

Because their visits stopped before the fall turkey firearm hunting season, we were not particularly concerned.

Besides, we live in Jefferson City where hunting is restricted severely.

Reading about turkeys, I learned that mother turkeys raise their poults away from the main flock and rejoin flocks only after their poults reach maturity.

By the final weeks of their visits, Betsy’s poults had grown so large it was difficult to distinguish them from Betsy at a distance.

An indication that she’d joined her flock was when a neighbor saw her with a group of other adult turkeys shortly after her last visit with us.

While saddened, my heart was warmed that by following her poults who never were as comfortable in our backyard as Betsy, she demonstrated a lesson I learned teaching younger journalists covering the statehouse — that eventually you need to let the new generation take the lead.

My wife and I hope Betsy returns to our backyard next summer to enjoy the copious kernels of corn dropped by the squirrels.

But if not, she’s left a warm memory with us as well as a lesson of eventually letting a new generation take the lead.

So, thanks Betsy, for a Thanksgiving gift of memories we’ll always treasure.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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