Months ago, this jaunty title scratched its way onto my short list for a November article, but how to justify “talking turkey” about the bird-life of the West Village (and Millie)? Then, on October 8th, the New York Times published the news that Zelda, Battery Park’s eleven-year-resident (her species championed by Benjamin Franklin as the national bird of this fledgling country—the Bald Eagle ultimately winning out) had been ignominiously done in by a car on South Street near Wall Street’s Pier 11 (maybe after a late night of carousing far from her neighborhood or finally heading back north for a family reunion), and left this faire isle forever. In tribute: My epitaph for Zelda.
Checking my notebooks, I first recorded a turkey in lower Manhattan on January 13, 2008. All of the news reports say that she was named after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda who was occasionally found roaming Battery Park in a less-than-altogether state of mind. In 2008 I was a novice birder. I knew what a turkey was (I wasn’t that novice). Seeing a turkey in Manhattan, however, seemed like it might be news. Though upon asking around among my new birding pals, I soon found out, “Oh, Zelda’s been there for years!” The Battery Conservancy reported that she made herdebut in downtown Manhattan on May 5, 2003, having, speculatively, made her way south from The Bronx. Was it wanderlust, trouble at home (that ten-timing tom of hers never saying she was pretty), looking for an outlet to charge her cell phone?
Here is where the West Village connection comes in: If she was originally from The Bronx, or maybe even a pampered (though disillusioned) Scarsdale girl, I can imagine her strolling leisurely down the west side through Inwood Hill and Fort Tryon parks, Riverside Park, and then, Hudson River Park—perhaps she sashayed right past Perry Street or spent a night roosting in the bosque of trees at Charles. Maybe she only flew through the neighborhood—turkeys, despite their enormous size, do fly—with her sights set on the “mountain range” of downtown. Maybe she was just a big city girl!
Zelda was one of those urban birds that transcends the “species tick-off ” on a day’s birding list (Wild Turkey, 1, female) and becomes an individual. I can’t boast that I could have picked her out of a police lineup of rounded up damsel turkeys, brought in for suspected cracked corn thievery or trespassing on a private balcony, but she was known to me by familiarity and location, location, location. Many a time, having just missed the Staten Island Ferry, I would go out into Battery Park looking for her.
There she would be: wandering through the Mondrian geometry of the children’s playground, browsing the produce at the urban farm, or pondering the enormity of the monuments to human sadness weighing down the tip of Manhattan. Occasion- ally I would spot her roosting in a London Plane tree, her head contentedly, or per- haps dejectedly, nestled under her wing. Hen turkeys don’t perform the extravagant strutting displays of the menfolk; courting toms really do look like those cardboard cutout Thanksgiving Day turkeys taped up on elementary school windows or gobbling from Hallmark cards. Though, I did see Zelda once quite fluffed up after her preening self-spa treatment, seemingly twice her size, when every iridescent brown feather glistened with blue and green and gold and russet—with an impressive ruff rounding her neck like Queen Elizabeth.
I can even work in a connection between Millie and Zelda! Soon after Millie arrived, when she was young and rambunctious and her full repertoire of prohibitive quirks had not yet barked free, sometime during the summer of 2010, I walked Millie on her tiny corgi legs all of the way downtown to Battery Park. We saw Zelda. Or. I recall: I saw Zelda. Whether the tête-à-tête between Zelda and Millie was memorable for Millie I can’t say. Maybe being a Rhode Island girl, Millie had already trotted with a local gang of turkeys, and seeing one more was no great shakes to her.
Wistfully, my most memorable encounter with Zelda was the day before Hurricane Sandy rampaged in. I hadn’t really been paying attention to the weather forecast (Hurricane? Hurricane? What’s that buzzing in the background like an annoying mosquito?) I had gone out to Staten Island’s Wolfe’s Pond Park for some relaxing birding, and got a call, “You better get back fast, there are only two more ferry runs before it’s shutting down!” Returned to Manhattan, I walked back to the West Village along the river, memorizing the “before” whatever was about to happen happened. I remember coming upon Zelda nonchalantly scratching along the river wall, and thinking, “Oh, what will she do? I hope she makes it through!” After the storm surge and the blackout, when it was safe again to go downtown, I was so relieved to see her—this time scratching nonchalantly among the floodtide debris—and cheered her plucky resilience.
Zelda is no more. But I imagine that thousands, if not millions, of photographs had been taken of her by passing tourists on their way to the Statue of Liberty Ferry. She was a New York dowager destined for a place of honor in the social register. The afterglow from Zelda’s “mahvelous” party will glow long and brightly.
For more information about nature walks, books and photographs, visit http://www.keithmichaelnyc.com .