Turkeys in the Yard

November 17, 2014


Above: Quick sketch of one of the wandering turkeys in our neighborhood in my 7.75 x 9.75 inch Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Softcovered Journal. I scratched this out with a Faber-Castell Pitt Calligraphy Pen standing on the porch looking into the yard. Then I retired indoors to slap on some watercolor from memory. Instead of coloring the background with a flat use of color I added some splats of Montana Acrylic Marker to the background by squeezing drops of orange acrylic paint out of the nearly empty marker refill bottle and smooshed (a technical term) the drops all around with a paper towel. Finally I added splats of blue acrylic paint.

I live in Minneapolis, in the city. It's a residential area but there is nothing suburban about where I live. It is the city; it is near industrial and office buildings. It is adjacent to the University of Minnesota campus. And I'm less than a block away from the Mississippi River.

And that's why I have turkeys in my yard.

They wander up from the river flats, get bored with the groomed lawns of the U, and mosey on over to our neighborhood where we have a large fenced yard that is protected from all but aerial predators (we have a female red-tailed hawk who likes to sit in our trees). When the turkeys have reached a certain age and ability hopping the 5-foot fence is a piece of cake (and impressive to watch).

I've drawn a lot of turkeys. Some in the yard—sometimes while I am also in the yard, and sometimes while I'm standing in the small porch looking out at the yard. Some of the turkeys I've drawn have been at the Minnesota State Fair, or at local parks, and along the bike paths I frequent. The last is a difficult drawing situation for me as I'm usually too shaky from peddaling hard to make more than a squiggle for a line. But if I'm not just off my bike I can usually hold my excitement in check and get a reasonable likeness.

I can do this, even when my subject is moving all around in my yard, because I've had a lot of time to look at a lot of turkeys and work on my visual memory of them. And because I take every opportunity to field sketch them!

What I end up getting in these situations, like today, is not necessarily an accurate portrait of an individual (though sometimes I'm able to include specifics that indicate an individual), but is an impression of the creature in the moment—me looking at the bird, and the bird looking back—an impression of what it feels like to me to see this creature.

It doesn't matter to me that the nostril might be too long, the bumps too blue with not enough brown. I make these decisions each time the bird returns to a pose, or by watching it in another pose, extrapolating what the part I was drawing looks like based on the new angle presented as the animal walks away. (If you don't startle them turkey's walk away slowly and turn frequently so you can work on different parts of your drawing and return to specific bits each time they present that bit.

So the accuracy isn't of paramount importance to me in these situations, it's what my eye saw at the moment and what my mind could retain.

Overtime I find that I've retained more and more, and that for me is the fun of sketching animals from life.

There are still days when I sketch a live animal from a distance, in zero time, and seem to get everything wrong, but I remember what the goal is—to observe as best I can; to consider a proportion here and there, a line, a slope, an angle; to see some value shifts; and to breathe in the same space with something wild, other, and alive.

I remember all that when a drawing doesn't quite come out the way I'd hoped. I'm grateful that an opportunity presented itself. I feel good about taking the time, putting something down on paper. It doesn't matter if I get a recognizable head on the page, or focus on the feet, or pay intense attention to a feather pattern (or a fur pattern—we're visited by squirrels, groundhogs, muskrat, raccoons, opposums…even a skunk once). It only matters that I get something down on paper.

Each piece I do brings me closer to my goals of keener observation and translation. Each piece is a necessary and welcome step towards that goal. 

I encourage you to sketch from life whenever possible, even if it is only for a couple moments—those moments add together over time. And in the meantime you have a record of how you are spending your time.

Note: It's an obvious advantage to sketching when one of the largest birds alive comes to hang out in your yard, but you can do the same approach with smaller birds by carefully positioning feeders to attract birds you want to sketch so that you can get a lot closer to your smaller subjects.

    • Julana
    • November 17, 2014

    Our bird feeders attracted squirrels that damaged our roof. We were told by Ohio Wiodlife that the only way to protect the roof was to stop feeding the birds….

  1. Reply

    I love turkeys. Their numbers are skyrocketing in California, and I know they are out-competing native birds, but since they’re here, I’m going to enjoy them. They turn up all over town (and especially love the cemetery) and let me get pretty close to draw them. Your ability to capture avian facial expressions is beyond compare.

  2. Reply

    Alison, it is fun. It’s like having raptors (old time raptors) in the yard.

    I do worry sometimes that they aren’t a bit more alert when crossing the alley. We live in amongst a lot of college students who speed down the alley and are crazy!

    The only downside to the turkeys has been that they knocked down one of our trees. We let a couple tall but slender dead trees remain in the yard because it brings woodpeckers. Two years ago I was in the studio and there was a large CRACK and I looked out the window and the dead maple which had a y branch at about 6 feet had fallen over because too many turkeys had tried to sit on it. (The house was always safe.)

    It was even sort of funny, except that then Dick had to chop the tree all up and we didn’t have as many woodpeckers.

    I’m so glad you have woodpeckers, they are some of my favorites! What fun to see them fledging.


  3. Reply

    Robin, that’s interesting. I always assumed they were native to MN reading your note I thought I should check if they were native to MN, and THEY ARE, Yeah. (I would have loved them anyway, but it’s nice to know.)

    is a little write up about them and how over the past 25 years there restoration has been a great success. Well I can testify to that!

    I have to say that we get mostly females and young males. I have yet to see a full gobbler in our yard. I think they are cagier and more conservative about coming out this far from the River.

    However, when I ride my bike down to the lock and dam or through MPLS to Hopkins I have seen the full grown males proudly displaying!

    I’m glad you enjoy my bird sketches. I really love birds. I am happiest when I’m near them sketching. Or with dogs. Sketching.

  4. Reply

    Julana, I’m so sorry that happened to you. Squirrels can be a problem. We haven’t had any roof problems because of them. We do have that red-tailed hawk who likes to chow down on squirrels and bunnies so that might be to our advantage.

  5. Reply

    That made me look more closely into the CA turkeys. I had remembered reading that they were having negative impacts on other species but now can’t find anything about that so I may have been mistaken. And it sounds like either they or a close ancestor once lived in the state, so they are a reintroduction instead of an introduction. Looks like their only flaw is as a nuisance to humans, so I can enjoy them guilt-free now!

  6. Reply

    Robin, I’m glad you wrote back with this, it’s interesting that they were out in CA too. I’m glad you can enjoy them guilt-free now.

    In what way are they a nuisance? Here they don’t do much of anything except wander around and eat and they don’t seem to poop nearly as much as Canada Geese.

    Do they eat shrubs and stuff that gardeners like to keep? (I am not a gardener and anything that’s in my yard is fair game for turkeys and any other creatures.)

  7. Reply

    They do eat plants in people’s gardens and can apparently get aggressive when begging for food. And in places where there are really large numbers, it sounds like the poop is a problem too. I think it mostly comes down to an overpopulation problem in CA right now, because I also read that there are some problems with them eating too much of the acorn crop and out-competing ground-nesting birds (found an article I missed the first time). If their numbers stay reasonable, though, they are pretty well-adapted for CA.

    I just love the way they move – they remind me of their long lost dinosaur relatives when they run especially.

    • Julana
    • November 20, 2014

    Oh my. I saw a hawk take a squirrel aloft behind our last house. Chilling sight.

  8. Reply

    Ah the begging for food issue. Squirrels along the walkway to one of the parking lots at the U are notorious for chasing the nurses who are walking to their cars, because so many nurses sit on nearby benches during their lunch times and feed them.

    They are very beautiful when they move and that’s exactly what I see when they move, their original raptor relatives!

    • Meg
    • November 21, 2014

    Roz, is it alright to download this picture and put it up on my workshop wall as a color study? I have been intrigued by the colors ever since you posted this but I don’t understand how it works yet. It’s completely OK if you don’t want me to; I’ll just come back to this post over and over like I have been.

  9. Reply

    Meg, thanks for being respectful of my copyright. It’s alright with me if you want to print it out to look at as a color study. Other use would not be alright (tracing, projecting, reproducing etc.). I think you might be able to see more detail on your computer screen because it is a low res image, but if it helps you to look at it in print (I like to get away from my computer as much as possible) that’s OK.

    What part of it is it you don’t understand? Is it the background? Imagine a completely white sheet that I drew and then painted the bird on, background still white.

    To get the paint on the background I squeezed an almost empty soft sided bottle and splatters and drops came out onto the page. Then I smudged those immediately, before they could dry, with a paper towel, always working away from the drawing already on the page. (I missed in a couple spots on the bill because the paper towel, when working fast, is a crude tool. But I like that. And the blue drops went on last in the background and weren’t touched.

    Orange drops that fell inside the bird were also left alone because if I’d moved them they would have disrupted the watercolor.

    Hope that helps you.

    • Meg
    • November 22, 2014

    Thanks, Roz. No, it’s just the colors I’m interested in, and the proportion and placement.

    I’m a weaver and I find I have to “live with” colors a while before I consider using them in my work. I have to look at them in different light and walk past them and imagine them in different textures and sheen and the like. And then consider the simultaneous contrast in textiles. That’s about all I can explain in words; I don’t know how the rest even works. And it takes a long, long time for ideas to manifest on the loom, but that’s how I work, so there it is. If your colors appear on my loom at some stage, I’ll be sure to let you know.

    Thank you again.

  10. Reply

    That makes sense. I had a student in one of my color theory classes who collected news photographs (colored images from the newspaper) that contained colors that spoke to her and then she would gather beads in those color ranges and apply her color theory knowledge and make jewelry. It was great fun.

    I’m particularly drawn to blues and oranges.

    If you get inspired to weave these colors I would love to see what you come up with!

  11. Reply

    Wow what can I say. Love this. You have gotten me hooked on drawing birds. I know we have turkeys in the woods in my neighborhood but I have never seen one in the yard. I may have to feed them too. Of course my lab is in charge of chasing the Canadian geese and the vultures when they roost in the sycamores in the back yard so they don’t stay long. I guess she would be after the turkeys too. Anyway wonderful sketch guess I will stick to the songbirds on the feeder. And the gulls in local parking lots. Ps love the background.

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