It was about a week ago that Kevin finished building the turkey pen, and it’s beautiful.

The fence is made from cattle panels, fortified by chicken wire on the bottom half, so the turkeys can’t squeeze through the holes. The gate is made with 1×3 lumber, with a portion of a cattle panel, and attached to the fence with hardware we bought at a yard sale.

But the pièce de résistance is the treehouse, made almost completely of scavenged materials.

Since we moved here, I have become an avid scavenger, but I think I always had the tendency. Way back in the ‘80s, when I lived in San Francisco, there was an annual garbage pick-up of oversized items. On that one day, you could leave absolutely anything at the curb and the sanitation crew would take it away. My friend Lisa Menna and I used to treat it like a national holiday – Big Trash Day – and we’d go out to see what we could find.

Lisa always hit the jackpot. She’s a professional magician, and could turn almost anything into a prop or a trick. I didn’t fare as well. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment, already fully furnished, and I had a regular job. I didn’t need much that was likely to make its appearance on Big Trash Day. Still, I loved the experience.

Out here on Cape Cod, there isn’t much in the way of garbage pick-up. Most of us take our garbage to the dump, and we pay extra to dispose of oversized items. As a result, people tend to leave those items by the side of the road, with a “Free” sign on them. Businesses usually hire private sanitation services, and so there are also dumpsters galore. While residential cast-offs run to sofas and dishwashers, business debris runs to building materials and fixtures. Every day is Big Trash Day!

But scavenging seems to be something some people are good at and some people aren’t. My mother knew a woman in New York who found a museum-quality antique bed in the trash. My little brother Jake once found a brand new wetsuit – in his size.

My skills need some refinement, I’m afraid. It was a few weeks ago that Kevin and I were driving over to see my parents when I spotted a large, clay-colored dome with an opening just the size of a pizza peel – and it had the “Free” sign.

“Kevin, Kevin!” I said, very excited. “They’re giving away a wood-fired oven insert!”

Because he has bionic peripheral vision he had, of course, seen it.

“Honey,” he said, clearly trying to break it to me gently. “That’s a doghouse.”

Kevin is very good at scavenging. We were on the way to Home Depot to get a few odds and ends for the turkey treehouse when he suddenly slammed on the brakes and pulled a hard right. I had no idea what he had seen until he pulled up behind a building that had housed a carpet business that had gone under. There was a dumpster. In the dumpster were several sheets of quarter-inch plywood – exactly what he had planned to build the treehouse out of.

We loaded them into the truck and crossed that item off our Home Depot list.

When all was said and done, the only part of the treehouse we paid retail for was some of the framing lumber. The floor was made from a pallet that we scavenged from the dumpster behind the equipment rental place near us. A lot of the other lumber came from an ancient treehouse the neighborhood kids had built on the empty lot next to us. We cut the roost bars from trees. Kevin gave the turkeys a window that he’d paid a dollar for at a yard sale, and you know where the plywood came from.

Once it was done, all it needed was a door to go over the open spot where the turkeys go in and out. Luckily, the compost sieve was a perfect fit. Two nails, two hooks, and a bungee cord, and it was done.

It’s a great pen. It’s got a nice, sturdy, fence, and a treehouse that serves the dual purpose of giving the turkeys a high roosting place and providing some shelter from the rain underneath. It’s big enough to accommodate an expanded flock, and the whole thing was done for something in the neighborhood of $200.

There’s only one problem. Turkeys can fly.

I’d read that, if you keep turkeys fenced in from the time they’re very young, they’ll respect fences. And, for all I know, our turkeys do respect the fences. They may even esteem them. All I can tell you is that they fly over them.

Our birds hang out in the pen until they decide it isn’t fun anymore, and then they fly out. Usually, this is because we come to visit them and then go away again, or because they hear the sounds of interesting activity they want to investigate.

At night, though, we planned to secure them in the treehouse, away from predators. The first night we were planning to try this we went out to put them away a little before sunset only to find that they had disappeared. We looked in trees, and bushes, and in the garage where the brooder that had been their previous home still sat. No turkeys.

We were worried about them, and I went out early in the morning to look for them. As soon as I walked out of the house, they came rushing out of the woods, half running, half flying. One went on the boat. One went in the bed of truck. Two came over to see if I had anything to eat.

Penmanship, Round One: Turkeys.

We herded them back into the pen, where they stayed for most of the day. Periodically, one or two would fly over the fence but, once outside, they didn’t seem to take advantage of the opportunities freedom afforded them. Instead, they hung around by the fence, trying to get back in. Although every one of them has flown out of the pen, none of them has managed to figure out how to fly back in.

I’m tempted to take this is a sign of turkeys’ vaunted stupidity, but I have to be careful with that. I find myself grateful that I already wrote a post about how intelligent the turkeys seem because now I’m writing about our efforts to outsmart them.

That night, we put them in the treehouse an hour or so before the sun went down, so they didn’t have a chance to find roosts out in the wild. We did it again the next night.

Penmanship, Round Two: Humans

The night after that, Kevin was bound and determined that the birds would go in the treehouse of their own accord. As soon as the sun started to set, we put chairs outside the pen to watch what the turkeys would do.

As it got darker, they were clearly looking for a place to roost. They were pacing the fence, looking up in the trees, and making their weird croaking sound that sounds more like a seal’s bark than a bird’s peep. And then one made a break for it, flying right over the fence and landing near the mushroom logs. Kevin corralled it and threw it back in.

We waited. And then another one, or maybe the same one, flew up, over, and onto the woodpile. Kevin corralled it and threw it back in. After the third breach of the fence, Kevin stood near the point they seemed to like to fly over and glared at them, willing them to go into the treehouse. One of them flew right in his face.

Eventually, we decided to put two of them in the treehouse bodily. Once we did, the other two followed.

Penmanship, Round Three: Draw

It’s been about a week, and turkeys have yet to go in their treehouse of their own volition. Most of the day, they stay in the pen, but occasionally we’ll get an escapee. All of this raises the question: why bother?

Our turkeys are a breed, Standard Bronze, that’s reputed to be closely related to wild turkeys. Wild turkeys clearly fend for themselves outdoors. They probably don’t have many day-time predators, and they roost in trees at night. Here I am, worrying about my turkeys, but I don’t give a second thought to the ducks or geese nesting out there, unprotected. Big birds that can fly are pretty well-defended.

Kevin’s original idea about turkeys was to keep them in the brooder until they were big enough to be outside, and then just let them go. We’d give them food and water, and otherwise let them fend for themselves. No pen, no treehouse, no coddling.

Too bad that plan only starts to make sense to me after we’ve built the pen and treehouse.

15 people are having a conversation about “Penmanship

  1. So, I can scavenge for stuff that might be useful … but I’m not very good at actually using it for anything. My basement / garage are testament to this!

    That is one very fine turkey treehouse!

  2. For naught? Nah. It’s beautiful, for one thing. And for another you could always put more chickens in there, right?

    I had thought you said your turkeys were Bourbon Reds, and I wondered why yours were so much darker than mine. Makes sense now.

    I admire scroungers with talent. We do some diving at construction sites, but not as much as I’d like. They’re sorta strict at the recycling center, even though it sort functions as a dump in some ways.

  3. That is one gorgeous treehouse! Looking forward to some bigtime turkey posts in November.

    I got to build an outdoor pizza mud oven with mostly foraged materials while WWOOFing in Spain — It was a great experience, but I feel like I still have a lot to learn about scrounging with style.

  4. I can’t see very well into the interior, but have you given them an actual roost inside the treehouse? A scavenged closet rod should do the trick — or deadwood from the yard.

  5. OK, Tamar….this post qualifies as funniest of the day for me. It made me laugh out loud after a long and trying day! Kudos to you!

  6. Scavenging… I would, if I only had a truck.

    Actually, your turkey house reminds me of the signal cabin that was in this month’s Sunset magazine; all it needs is a short deck across the front and a barn door. It’s a very nice poultry house.

    By the way, I still have the small upholstered chair a buddy of mine trash picked off the street in San Francisco in the early eighties. Wow! have I really had it that long? That means I hauled it from California, to Florida, and back across the country to Oregon. What can I say? San Francisco throws out good stuff.

  7. Fiona — There’s a fine line between scavenging too much and not scavenging enough. It’s an art.

    Kate — I thought I said that, too, but if I did, I was wrong. They’re Bronze. And we’re thinking along the same lines — of repurposing the pen if the turkeys don’t take to it. Goats? A couple of pigs?

    Wen — Nice oven! We’ve got one half-constructed in our yard, but I think we’ve decided to build the dome out of firebrick instead of clay. More on that soon …

    Stephanie — It isn’t clear, but there are two roost bars, made from tree branches, on the inside.

    Saundra — What makes my day is to make someone laugh. Thanks.

    Paula — There’s nothing like a great trash pick! A chair with 6000 miles on it has got to be one.

    Get the damn truck already.

  8. “Honey, that’s a doghouse.”

    sent me rolling on the floor. mostly because i can hear Kevin’s voice and tone saying that.

  9. Until I read your post, I’d simply assumed that scavenging fell into the “gathering” camp. But judging by how necessary Kevin’s bionic vision and quick car manouvring skills are, I’d like to reclassify it in the “hunting” category. And maybe rename it something manly. Dumpster stalking.

    Assumption no 2: I never looked at a turkey and thought aerodynamic, so I don’t suppose I would have credited them with the ability to get over the fence either. It’s what were you saying the other day about the “soft bigotry of low expectations” (Did Michael Gerson mention anything about it biting you in the ass later?).

    The tree house looks fantastic.

  10. Amanda — Yeah, I would have thought it was funnier if I hadn’t felt like such an idiot.

    Jen — I think you’re right that scavenging counts as gathering — I hadn’t thought about it that way. How about we call it X-treme Dumpstering, and make it competitive? That’s manly, right?

    The turkeys fly WAY better than we thought they would. I mean, they’re not about to start soaring with the eagles, but they make the chickens look like penguins. (That came out wrong. The chickens don’t look anything like penguins, it’s just that they don’t fly very well.) We soft bigots are certainly getting our comeuppance.

  11. Heh heh heh. Yeah, turkeys fly REALLY well. One of my favorite fruitless hunts ever took place in a Napa Valley vineyard. I stashed myself in the shade in a creekbed that I thought the turkeys might use as a passage, and when I looked up the bank, I thought how lovely it would be if one would just fly over me like a duck so I could shoot it mid-air. Har har.

    Later I moved up the bank, and minutes after I did, I’ll be damned if a turkey didn’t come flying over the creek, from exactly the direction I’d wished for minutes earlier, but now out of range. I watched him sail a long, long way into the vineyard, cursed him, and packed it in for the day.

    The let-em-fly idea might not be so bad if you ensure that you are their primary food source. Otherwise, they’ll start begging all over your neighborhood, making nuisances of themselves.

  12. Oh yeah, P.S., wild turkeys have a range of 1200 acres out in nature. Not sure how much that changes when they have a sugar-momma and sugar-daddy making sure they’re well-fed.

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