There are mornings when the cold is as brittle as a burnt match, with an acrid, dry sting when it blows across your face. These don’t just feel like nothing would think of growing that particular day but that nothing has grown in the past or will grow in the future, that every green memory is a wishful delusion. Then there are mornings the thermometer claims are every bit as cold but which are heavy with the portent of spring. The light and the smell of the air tells you that the afternoon will be warmer, that the snow and frozen ruts will soon be churned into deeper ruts of mud, that the grass and trees may not yet be green but are thinking hard about when to start pushing leaves.
It was on the latter of these - an optimistic morning - that a few dozen turkeys began gleaning the corner of a cornfield. They walked, as turkeys do, with halting, deliberate steps, heads hesitating a moment before springing forward to catch up with their bodies. Now and then each would stop to unfurl its neck for a good look at the ground, swinging back and forth above the layer of frozen snow, as if it might melt and yield up the stray kernels under a forceful enough gaze. Occasionally one pecked at a piece of corn stalk where it stubbed out through the ice, and a tom fanned his tail but didn’t bother strutting.
Into this calm scene trotted a fox. He headed for the turkeys as you might approach a group of friends you just spotted across a large park, with just a touch of urgency to reach them before they could wander off. Anyone who has tried this knows that turkeys can spot a burr on a steer’s tail from a mile off, or the one clean patch on a muddy pig, or whatever faux folksy idiom you prefer. So there was no question that they’d been watching the fox his entire way, and they kept watching as he casually drifted closer. It looked like he wanted them to believe he had important business in the stand of hemlocks a little further on, that he was only passing so near to all these plump, tasty birds because they happened to be in his way.
But none of them were fooled. When, in a flash of fiery orange, he suddenly leapt for the nearest cluster of three, they were instantly airborne. The rest of the flock watched this intently, but they did not go up into the trees. The fox, no doubt feeling quite foolish, charged the next closest little cluster. But these simply darted around him, and what followed was a sort of dance, with the fox making a half-hearted attempt at one group of birds and then another, until all the turkeys were circling and weaving about him, always just out of reach.
Pretty soon he gave up and sat down. The turkeys stopped and looked at each other. The fox looked at them. They looked at the fox. Then, with slow, deliberate, bobbing steps, they formed a half circle around and began to encroach. It wasn’t threatening, exactly, but it also wasn’t not threatening. The fox sat nonchalantly, even though he suddenly looked small in comparison to the giant birds slowly closing in around him. Then, at the last moment, he sprang to his feet and trotted off, as if he’d just remembered an appointment in some other corner of the forest. Soon he was in the trees, but before he even reached them the turkeys were back to looking for corn and waiting for spring.
The peculiarity of this interaction arose from its uncertainty. A fox is more of a predator than a turkey, and he clearly had thoughts of eating one. Maybe in the past he’d lucked into an unwary hen. But the turkeys clearly didn’t see themselves as prey in this scenario, and they didn’t act like it. Both the pursuit and the evasion looked like half measures, like the fox was saying, “Well, if one of you wants me to eat you, I certainly will,” and the turkeys were saying, “I guess we’ll run away from him, but he’s not enough of a threat to make us leave this place where there might be corn.” And in the end that’s what they did.