Today, I woke to the sound of exuberant gobbles and flapping feathers. This was not the usual dull ring of my cellphone alarm. I knew immediately that something special was afoot. I peered into our rainy yard. There stood my neighbor in gray sweatshirt, a wooden box in hand and a look of excitement. With each pass of the lid, a great clamor arose from beneath my window. I looked down. There on the grass stood five beautiful turkeys. A single proud male rose up defiantly with each joyful screech of my neighbor’s call, flashing his brilliant plumage and colorful crown. I knew today was no ordinary day.
Meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey, is truly a national treasure. It is said that Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey as the official bird of the United States:
…I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth 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. (Letter to Sarah Bache on January 26, 1784)
As stately and proud as Mr. Franklin, the wild turkey is among the largest native birds of the forests of New England. Like so many treasures of the American landscape, the turkey was quickly eradicated by means of hungry mouths and felled forests. By 1851, Meleagris gallopavo had completely disappeared from Massachusetts. In a model example of repopulation efforts, a number of turkeys captured in upstate New York were released by the University of Massachusetts in cooperation with the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in 1972 and 1973. Today, the population has rebounded to over 20,000 individuals, who in true Bostonian form, are just as likely to be found strutting through city traffic as scratching around in the suburbs.
These birds were huge! The mature male, or tom, was unmistakable in his showy strutting and from the presence of his large “snood”–the fleshy bump above the beak that females find simply irresistible. I was unsure about the age and sex of the others. My neighbor, who admitted to having years of bow-hunting experience, suggested that we also had two jakes and two jennies (juvenile males and females, respectively) in our group.
I’m curious about my birds’ commute this morning. I have a hunch that they strolled over from the banks of the Mystic, less than a mile away.
After a few more minutes of loud calling and picture taking, and a few threatening glances from the testy male, I decided to let the turkeys resume their hunt for insects, roots and acorns in peace.
Sadly, my avian encounter was not the auspicious beginning of an extraordinary day, as I had anticipated, but rather the climax of an altogether normal Monday. Still, a little wildness in the backyard is always a welcome sight.
Thanks for reading,
P.S., here’s an excellent graphic from Mass Audubon to help you brush up on turkey anatomy: