Zelda, the Wild Turkey of Battery Park

Happy Thanksgiving from Out Walking the Dog

A wild turkey has been living in New York City’s Battery Park since 2003.

Zelda the wild turkey of Battery Park.

Zelda the wild turkey of Battery Park.

The turkey is called Zelda after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, who supposedly roamed the area around Battery Park during one of her many breakdowns. See any resemblance?

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Zelda Fitzgerald as a teenager.

Zelda (the turkey, not the Fitzgerald) appears to be a tough old bird, having survived for a decade in a highly urban park, subject to wind, snow and 2012′s Hurricane Sandy which flooded the park with a 13-foot storm surge.

I first heard about Zelda soon after I moved home to Manhattan in 2008 after almost twenty years away. In those early years of my homecoming, I found myself in a fairly continual state of wonder as I encountered the wild creatures that share our city. Raccoons! Hawks! Peregrine falcons! Seals! Dolphins! Coyotes! Deer! Wild turkeys! I was smitten with Zelda before ever seeing her, touched by her appearance and survival on our crowded island where great flocks of her ancestors once thrived.  Several times, I set out for the southern tip of Manhattan to meet her.  But she proved elusive quarry, and as the years passed, I fretted that she might die before I ever laid eyes on her.

Last week, my quest to see Zelda was finally rewarded.

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Accompanied by my intrepid friend Mary, I walked south along the Hudson River Greenway to Battery Park.  Although Mary can watch an entire flock of wild turkeys from her house on the eastern shore of Maryland, she signed on with gusto to the quest for Zelda.

It was a beautiful day to walk along the river.

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Ferry plying the Hudson.

Somewhere in Battery Park City, we passed a large flock of Brant.

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Brant and children in Battery Park.

I’ve seen Brant around the same spot in past years as well as further up the Greenway in northern Manhattan. The birds, which resemble a smaller, shorter-necked version of Canada geese, seemed remarkably nonchalant about the many runners, children and dogs sharing their chosen space.

We passed other intriguing sights, including still-golden trees.

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But we were on a mission, and nothing could deter us.

When we reached Battery Park, we were startled to see how much of it was fenced off and undergoing renovation. A man with colorful brochures of New York City tried to interest us in a tour. We politely declined, but asked if he knew about the turkey who lived around here.

“Oh, sure,” he replied. “I see her all the time. She’s usually wandering around the paths.”  He laughed. “First time I saw her, she scared me to death. Keep going around this way. You’ll see her.”

Next we stopped a man driving a Parks Conservancy truck, and asked if he knew where we could find the turkey.

“Oh, Zelda, sure, she’s around,” he said. “She was just over there in the parking lot.” And sure enough, strolling about in a parking lot in front of the Department of Homeland Security and Coast Guard Recruiting Center was Zelda, the wild turkey.

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A beautiful bird, plump and well-feathered, she walked slowly and with a stately demeanor – stately, for a turkey, anyway. Mary wondered if she might be arthritic. After all, she’s old for a turkey.

A man, cellphone camera in hand, tried to get close to have his picture taken with her.

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Soon, the man we had met in the truck joined us in the parking lot. His name is Charles, he told us, and he knows Zelda well.  When Charles jingles his keys, Zelda comes and follows him as he retrieves a cupful of sunflower seeds and corn for her.

Here he is with jingly keys in hand.

Charles with keys in hand.

Charles with keys in hand.

Zelda did indeed respond to Charles, but when he left to get the seed, she seemed slow to follow, and rather easily distracted. First she became distracted by a hedge, staring into it in a way that reminded me of the great white peacock of Saint John The Divine.

Then a group of tourists on the path blocked her way.

  Charles returned and handed us a cup of seed. He told us to sprinkle it on soft patches of earth, because it’s hard for Zelda to pick the food up off the hard sidewalk or asphalt. We carefully sprinkled a few seeds on a promising bit of ground, but Zelda was skeptical of our feeding abilities. Charles took the cup and unceremoniously dumped out the entire contents along a sliver of soil at the edge of the sidewalk.  Zelda immediately chowed down.

As Zelda dined, Charles told us a little about her life. Every year, she lays eggs in various spots in the park. This year, she laid them in the hedge we saw her staring into.  Despite the huge flock of wild turkeys that live on Staten Island, Zelda seems to be Manhattan’s only resident turkey.  Zelda’s unfertilized eggs will never hatch.  “We have to take the eggs away sometimes,” Charles explained, “or she’ll just keep sitting on them and she won’t eat. It’s kind of sad, but she has a pretty good life here.”

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Every Thanksgiving, Charles said, people come to see if she’s still here. Mary asked if people ever harass her. Not if he’s around, Charles said. He also reminded us that she can fly, and so can escape, if she needs to. She roosts at night in nearby trees. Charles left us to our watching.

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And we left Zelda to her meal.  Goodnight, Zelda.

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Happy Thanksgiving.

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7 Comments on “Zelda, the Wild Turkey of Battery Park”

  1. Marion Says:

    I would doubt she’s the ONLY one in Manhattan. There used to be one in Morningside Park but he or she hasn’t been seen in years. There was one in Riverside over at the bird sanctuary near Riverside Church, but I read that Animal Control or Park Rangers or someone transported him/her away. Central Park is a big place and uptown there’s a lot of parks — Inwood, Fort Tryon. I’d be surprised if there isn’t another bird or two.


    • Hi Marion,
      You may be right that there is another turkey or two lurking on Manhattan Island. I’m pretty sure there is none in Riverside Park at the moment, although I did hear from someone who took his children sledding near 100th Street some years ago and saw a wild turkey hanging out there for the day. Don’t know if itwas the same as the Morningside Park turkey, which I would have loved to have seen! But that was, as I say, some years ago. I walk the Forever Wild bird sanctuary section regularly, but no turkeys. I’m also skeptical about a turkey being able to go undetected in Central Park – even the most heavily wooded sections are walked regularly by many people, including birders. I suspect it would be seen. Now Inwood and Fort Tryon are another story. The extraordinary thing about Zelda is that not only did she wander onto the island, as others have done, but that she has stayed – whether by choice or because she doesn’t know where to go from here. Either way, fascinating! Thanks so much for visiting Out Walking the Dog and for commenting.

  2. Mr. Mantooth Says:

    Prose poetry.
    Love knowing about
    a happy Turkey around Thanksgiving too.

  3. Karin Pieterse Says:

    Thank you for this nice slice of your life far far away. I enjoyed it. We also have strange animals in my country, South Africa. I have a few wild chameleons living in my backyard. Regards, Karin

  4. p hoey Says:

    A wonderful quest for you and pal Mary. May Zelda live on to a grand old age! And, Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Charlotte Says:

    Wonderful quest to find the elusive (or maybe not so) Zelda. Charles and Zelda remind me of the Echo Park Lake gray goose and the man who fed her for years until they remade the lake and took Maria, who turned out to be Mario, away to the L.A. zoo. Seems like the powers that be are pretty hands-off with Zelda, as it should be! Loved this search with Mary.

  6. Barbara Says:

    Love this – Happy Thanksgiving Melissa – to you, your family and Zelda! Great story!


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