As I sat down to write this week’s bird report, I was prepared to talk about the latest mind-bogglingly rare bird to turn up on the Cape. But then I had one of those forehead-slapping realizations where the proper course of action becomes painfully obvious. I’ll get to that rare bird next time, but this week we obviously need to talk turkey.
Other than the Bald Eagle, it’s hard to think of a more universally well-known bird than the Wild turkey, given the association with Thanksgiving, and that fact it is the only western hemisphere bird to be domesticated worldwide. And of course there’s that famous letter in which Ben Franklin extols the virtues of Wild Turkeys over Bald Eagles, which he described as “rank cowards."
Unless you’re a very recent washashore, you’ve probably noticed that Wild Turkeys have been on the increase on Cape Cod in recent years. Unruly gangs of urban turkeys hang around downtown Falmouth and other semi-urban locations. Maybe you’ve seen the viral video of some overly-hormoned Tom turkeys who chase a Falmouth mailman every day. You may laugh, but with males, or “toms," standing 4 feet tall and weighing over 20 pounds, they are a feathery force to be reckoned with.
In some winters I have seen flocks of almost 70 Wild Turkeys stopping traffic in Eastham. But until fairly recently, turkeys were extirpated, meaning locally extinct, from Cape Cod. So how did they get to be so ubiquitous?
By 1850, Wild Turkeys had been hunted to extinction in Massachusetts, and by the early 20th century they were gone from much of their historic range in North America. In 1972, Mass Wildlife began translocating New York turkeys into Massachusetts. They were finally reintroduced to Cape Cod in 1993, and they’ve been on the rise ever since. There are now fall and spring hunting seasons for turkeys throughout the state.
More than any bird I can think of, turkeys have a veritable glossary of weird words to describe their age classes, sexes, and body parts. Chicks are poults, as in the same root word as “poultry," and young males and females are Jakes and Jennies. Adult males and females are Toms and Hens. Their call is of course a gobble, and males are also called “gobblers."
Males, and some females, have modified feathers on the lower neck called a “beard." Males have redder heads with more fleshy bits, called “caruncles." Like really ugly mood rings, the caruncles change color when a turkey is excited. And that creepy, fleshy protuberance on the upper bill? That’s called, and I’m not making this up, a “snood." I suspect some pre-industrial ornithologist had a few too many flagons of mead when he was naming turkey parts.
Males also have spikes on their legs called “spurs," which they use to attack rival males. If you haven’t seen a turkey fight, where males jump kick each other with amazing force, you are missing out. I once heard what I thought was a contractor’s nail gun echoing through my neighborhood, and discovered it was actually a couple of male turkeys kung fu fighting in my neighbor’s yard. I don’t know about you, but it’s enough to make me think twice about becoming a mailman in Falmouth.
This essay first aired in November 2017. Mark Faherty is science coordinator at Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.