Wednesday, November 27, 2013

You Turkey!

There are few better ways to gain notice than to be magnificent, tasty, and standing in the middle of the road.

My gentle wife speaks with irritation about turkeys’ pedestrian disregard for their own safety. Furthermore, she sighs, they must have a death wish to be seen in public so near to Thanksgiving when some poor family will be needing a holiday dinner.

And yet the turkey proliferation is the success story of our Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Between 1972 and 1973 they released 37 birds trapped in New York State, to try to revive the population that had been exterminated in Massachusetts by 1850. In the ensuing forty years they, and others that may have arrived on their own from neighboring states, have increased to more than 20,000 birds that inhabit every county in the commonwealth.

A fair number of these favor Halibut Point. Their sense of geography is disjointed enough to lead them back and forth across the adjacent State Highway. Their survival is perplexing. Can they be the same gamebirds that hunters find so challenging to approach? My own suspicion is that the explanation may lie in the disproportion between the size of their heads and bodies.

I sought out the opinion of Dave Sartwell, the Outdoorsman columnist for the Gloucester Daily Times. Based on his many hunting experiences, Dave sees turkeys as wary but not smart. With excellent eyesight they detect the least movement and are very elusive in the wild. On the other hand, Dave once returned empty-handed from a hunt to find a turkey sitting on the hood of his truck. Vehicles apparently don’t register as a threat.

While reluctant to fly, turkeys are fleet of foot. Dave says that when they collapse their wings around them, lower their heads and sprint on those long legs, they look a missile running through the woods. They can also defend themselves with beak, talons, and, like fighting cocks, with lethal spurs on their heels. Protective mothers and courting Toms can make formidable battle.

Occasionally turkeys get their signals mixed up in their encounters with humans. A friend of mine who lives near Dogtown witnessed a big Tom pin his visiting sister in her car, pecking on the door. He’s willing to acknowledge that the bird may have been attacking its own reflection in shiny metal. But when it chased him into the barn he charged it with a wheelbarrow to restore order in the yard.

Various Boston suburbs have held public hearings and published advisories on the turkey problem. Rockport has offered its mailmen pepper spray. Our State Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs devotes a solemn website page to “Preventing Conflicts with Wild Turkeys”:
Remember that wild turkeys have a pecking order and that habituated birds may respond to you as they do to another turkey. The best defense against aggressive or persistent turkeys is to prevent the birds from becoming habituated in the first place by being bold to them. Everyone in the neighborhood must do the same; it will be ineffective if you do so only on your property. Each and every turkey must view all humans as dominant in the pecking order and respond to them as superiors rather than subjects. Habituated turkeys may attempt to dominate or attack people that the birds view as subordinates.

Benjamin Franklin lamented the choice of the bald eagle to represent the values of America. He wrote to his daughter that “the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

I laid my own doubts and vacillations before Chris Leahy of Mass Audubon, who echoed Franklin’s prejudice:
For the record, I believe that we should be celebrating the return of this magnificent native bird, which we once extirpated in New England, instead of fussing about the occasional rudeness of love-besotted Toms, which are of course doing what  males of all vertebrate species do when overwhelmed with the urge to breed.

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