This morning when I was taking our beagle, Melony, out to our backyard dog pen, we startled two wild turkey hens who had been sampling the seed beneath our bird feeder. J and I have seen turkeys in our yard before, but this was the first time Melony had seen one, so I expected her to lunge after them, as she does with our backyard bunnies. Instead, the turkeys crouched in their tracks, and Melony didn’t even strain at her leash as we walked past. Turkeys aren’t known for being particularly bright, but apparent these birds have learned that dogs on leashes aren’t a threat worth ruffling ones feathers over.
Earlier this week, I read an Audubon magazine article about an unidentified threat facing wild turkeys. (I’d link to the article, but it’s not posted online.) When I was a teenage birder in the 1980s, wild turkeys were rare, having been hunted to near extirpation in much of their native range. In the decades since, turkeys have been successfully reintroduced throughout much of the United States, leading many people to see them as the quintessential conservation story. The magazine article I read, however, was titled “Turkey Troubles: The Ups and Downs of an American Icon,” and it described an unexplained (and thus troubling) recent decline in turkey populations across the country. Turkeys used to be rare, then they experienced a resurgence, and now (according to Audubon magazine) their numbers are declining again, and no one seems to know why.
I have to admit I was incredulous while reading the article. “Turkeys aren’t rare,” I thought. “They seem to be everywhere in the Boston suburbs these days.” J and I often see turkeys roaming our neighborhood, and I regularly see them on my morning commute, occasionally having to stop to let them cross the road, just like the chicken in the old joke. On my way to Boston College on Friday morning, in fact, I saw a half dozen turkeys fly over Beacon Street, their heavy bodies barely clearing the cars in front of me. Flying turkeys always look aerodynamically improbable, as if they are able to remain aloft only by sheer luck, and the birds I’ve seen look glossy and well-fed, scavenging backyard feeders along with their natural food sources.
The Audubon article did admit that turkeys are becoming more adaptable in terms of their habitat preferences, learning to live alongside humans in the suburbs: apparently, it is elsewhere, in their wilder haunts, that wild turkeys are declining. In suburbia, the coexistence of birds and humans can be tenuous, however, since male turkeys are large, occasionally territorial, and possessing of sharp claws and spurs. The turkeys we’ve seen here in Newton haven’t been aggressive, but nearby Brookline seems to attract particularly nasty birds, and last year, environmental police shot a tom turkey that had attacked an employee at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
With this checkered history in mind, we’ll see how our Newton turkeys fare. The Cochituate aqueduct, a ribbon of woods frequented by joggers and dog-walkers, winds through our neighborhood, and both Newton Cemetery and Cold Spring Park offer fields and forests where long-legged birds can wander. Whenever we see turkeys in our neighborhood, I’m always startled and amazed: if birds this big can survive in the woodsy fringe of suburbia, what else lurks just beyond our green backyards?
This is my Day 9 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.
The photo at the head of today’s post shows the two turkeys that visited our yard this morning. The other photos illustrating today’s post come from previous turkey encounters.