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Talking Turkey on Martha’s Vineyard

Nelson Sigelman
Toms in a yard.

There are sounds I associate with life on Martha’s Vineyard. The cry of a gull. The crash of the surf. A plaintive fog horn echoing in the night. But “Gobble, gobble, gobble?”

First-time visitors to the Island are often surprised to find that turkeys are a common sight. They nonchalantly stroll across busy Island roadways. They deposit their droppings on porches, snack at bird feeders, and raid backyard gardens.

During spring mating season the sound of male turkeys, known as “Toms,” gobbling in earnest to attract hens, echoes in my Vineyard Haven neighborhood. But make no mistake about it, a Tom with love on his mind is no chicken. A big gobbler can be aggressive, and he sports a sharp, curved talon on each leg.

Males will sometimes attack their reflections thinking it is a rival suitor.  Years ago, a big Tom saw his spitting image on the side of a shiny, custom automobile and did considerable damage to the paint job. On occasion, a turkey will even go after a person it ranks low in its pecking order.

Mass Wildlife biologists stress that turkeys are wild animals and should be treated as such. Pampering any wild animal — feeding it, sheltering it, or treating it as a pet — is ultimately harmful to the animal.

Wild turkeys were widespread when the first English colonists arrived in what is now Massachusetts. Two centuries later, they had largely disappeared due to habitat loss and hunting.

Over the years, efforts to reintroduce turkeys in western and central Massachusetts paid off. Today, the state population exceeds 25,000 birds, according to wildlife officials.

So how did turkeys get reintroduced to Martha’s Vineyard? The answer gets lost in that curious fog of Island anecdote and natural history. Some say they originated with a turkey farm that went out of business. More believable is that Island sportsmen released game farm stock to hunt and the flocks grew from there.

West Tisbury native Joan Jenkinson was for almost three decades the town’s beloved animal control officer. Now in her seventies, she says she doesn't remember seeing turkeys around when she was a kid. A practical Islander, she doesn’t put much stock in the turkey farm theory. She says, “I don’t think that people that raised turkeys to eat them would let their turkeys go.”

There is a spring and a fall turkey hunting season. Truly wild turkeys are very wary and elusive. Our turkeys, not so much. One season, curious about the table quality of Island turkeys, I shot one and smoked the breasts. The resulting turkey sandwiches were the best I’d ever eaten.

Island turkeys prefer open spaces for their courtship rituals. Paved roadways provide more room to strut their stuff I suppose. And a lit up Tom, its head a palette of iridescent colors, fanning his tail in front of a group of hens is fun to observe — except when it stops traffic and you’re trying to get to the ferry.

I find it exasperating when summer motorists let turkeys cross the road as though they were kids in a crosswalk. It sends the wrong message to the tasty feather dusters. This is not Yellowstone Park. These birds are not parolees from a Thanksgiving dinner granted a new lease on life.

And the lesson being imprinted on those little turkey brains is that cars and trucks will stop for them. Well, not always. Wildlife experts advise, just slow down and keep driving. The turkeys will move out of the way.