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It's time to talk turkeys

Wild turkey chick
Becky Matsubara
CC BY 2.0
Wild turkey chick

This Thanksgiving week, while it’s tempting to trot out that tired old chestnut of a turkey piece I usually recycle, I thought I’d try to come up with some new material. But that isn’t easy, because turkeys don’t really change much, plus the Cape Cod Times just scooped me on the turkey topic, even using me a source. So if you’ll forgive me, I think I’ll just have to cobble this together with leftover material carved from previous drafts.

Turkeys are many things to many people — a welcome bit of wildness in the backyard, a feathered, pooping menace gouging your garden soil, jaywalking road hazards, or a worthy and wary opponent in the annual fall hunt. If you’ve been around long enough, you remember when there weren’t turkeys roaming every neighborhood and terrorizing mailmen in Falmouth and Centerville. In fact, after they were extirpated from the state in the 1860s, there were none at all on Cape until the 1990s. So how did they get back here — did they migrate majestically from Canada in great, gobbling flocks? Not exactly. They came here in the backs of trucks, kidnapped from flocks in upstate New York and western Mass by Mass Wildlife staff.

Releases of these off-Cape birds between 1989 and 1996 gave us the forefeathers of the turkeys we see today. After the initial release, the population didn’t increase much until it started creeping up in 2008 or so, then seemingly skyrocketing about five years ago, according to Christmas Bird Count data. At Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, a place with hundreds of acres of excellent habitat and no hunting, we didn’t have them until about 2010 for some reason, even though one of the original releases was in Wellfleet. Now they are ever-present, parked below the feeders, sprinting past my office window, or casually strolling the trails. Once, a male attacking his own reflection bloodied a window in the visitor’s center just as a donor event was about to begin. Sometimes we fondly remember when the turkeys hadn’t found us yet.

The population seems poised to increase even more. Around here, hunters and cars are the only significant predators of adult turkeys, who can stand an oddly imposing four feet tall and weigh in at over 20 pounds. In other parts of their range, studies show that bobcats are pretty good at eating turkeys, more so than other predators, but we don’t have bobcats here. The fuzzy and flightless little babies, known as poults, bear the brunt of the predation, and attrition is high in the broods — it’s typical for 15 chicks to hatch, but after the foxes, cats, and hawks take their share, only one or two will live to adulthood. But once they are adults, they keep on trucking, and breeding, for up to 10 years.

Turkeys always remind me of an old research gig I had in Everglades National Park, in South Florida. One of our projects was monitoring a recently reintroduced turkey population using game cameras and trails of corn. Back at the office, while clicking through the photos looking for turkeys, I would often see other wildlife, like deer, maybe a Florida panther, and the occasional nudists — one photo from the game camera revealed two men, wearing nothing but sneakers and tragically small fanny packs, pausing their morning constitutional to check out the camera. I’ll never unsee that photo. Wildlife biology can be a dangerous field, and that’s the naked truth.

Feel free to tell that story at whatever gathering you manage to have this week — it may come in handy to change the subject if your uncle starts talking about his Ivermectin treatments.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.