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Let's talk turkeys

Mark Faherty
Wild Turkey in Wellfleet reacting to a picture of a better-looking Ocellated Turkey.

At this turkey-oriented time, I’m here to take your mind off the fact that you have no plans to brine, or spatchcock, or deep fry a turkey in peanut oil, or whatever the gourmet types with endless free time tell us we should be doing to our turkeys. Like most people, I’m sure you’re just hoping you remember to pull the Butterball out in time to thaw, unlike that one time you didn’t and the turkey wasn’t ready until Friday.

Rather than reliving that, let’s talk about the wild turkeys of the world, all two species of them, as fully actualized living beings. You of course know the Wild Turkey, the big brown suburban bullies that chase mailmen and poop on your walkways, and we’ll get back to them. But did you know there’s another turkey in the world? The little-known Ocellated Turkey is a shiny, dare I say handsome turkey species endemic to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Like our turkeys back in the 19th century, Ocellated Turkeys have been hunted out everywhere except big forest preserves. If you’ve been to the famous Tikal Mayan ruins in Guatemala, and who hasn’t, then you’ve probably seen one of these shimmery green and chestnut turkeys with the blue and orange head. If not, you should probably google one or look at the web version of this report.

You probably don’t need to google what Wild Turkeys look like, since you’ve likely had a recent stare down with one in the middle of the road. After 130 years of absence, turkeys are back, and out for vengeance. Wild birds from New York were reintroduced to the Cape in the 90s, which means they probably arrived wearing flannels, Pearl Jam concert shirts, and logging boots. But it wasn’t until 2016 that they really started to skyrocket, taking over entire neighborhoods and making some nostalgic for those peaceful days before the reintroduction. Which made me wonder – are turkeys of any actual use?

Some say they eat a lot of ticks. But the one study of this, co-authored by an old grad school friend, showed that turkeys don’t eat many adult ticks, though they will preen off any nymphs that get on them. So they gave them a net zero rating, meaning they don’t help much with ticks but they probably don’t hurt, either. However, several studies show turkeys are a significant host for the Lone Star Tick, that fun new parasite now proliferating around here. These are the ticks that can give you a red meat allergy – I wonder if they can give that to the turkeys, and whether that explains why you never see a pack of turkeys trying to bring down a cow?

We’re now almost 30 years removed from the turkey reintroductions here on Cape Cod, but people are still, for some reason, working to reintroduce turkeys to other parts of the former range. When I worked in South Florida, one of my projects was monitoring a newly introduced turkey population in the pine woods of Everglades National Park. I did this in part by coaxing the turkeys in front of motion-sensitive cameras using long strings of corn, kind of like Wile E. Coyote trying to get Roadrunner under a hanging anvil. In this study, among other scientific facts, I learned that Mr. Coyote would have been better off trying to catch a turkey.

I think we need one last turkey fun fact to take us home. So, while the old show WKRP in Cincinnati answered the question “what would happen if you dropped promotional live turkeys from a helicopteror,” you may still be wondering, “What would happen if you dropped them from a helicopter over the ocean.” Well, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, turkeys can apparently swim by “tucking their wings in close, spreading their tails, and kicking.” Now there’s a little factoid to help you really shine in your Thanksgiving table conversation. Use it to deftly change the subject when your brother-in-law starts talking about how good that deep-fried turkey was that he made that one time.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.