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Shelter Island turkey tales

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO A wary wild turkey making its way around the Island this week.
A wary wild turkey making its way around the Island this week.

If you’ve ever been close to a wild turkey (and what Islander hasn’t), the first impression is how magnificently ugly they are, with the heads of space aliens and those dangling red wattles.

These comedians of the avian world look clumsy, but they can fly, and when they take wing they’re as graceful as any bird, sometimes reaching speeds up to 50 miles an hour. But they’re most content being earthbound, strutting around with the could-care-less attitude of bored aristocrats.

They can also transform themselves in a flash into completely different beings, flaring out their feathers and changing the color of their fleshy necks to blue, gray or, being an American species, red, white and blue. The toms preen like this when they’re scared or angry or looking for love. Though they look comic, the birds can get aggressive during mating season.

If you think you’re seeing more wild turkeys around the Island, you’re right. Reports from Sylvester Manor, Mashomack and anecdotal evidence from the Reporter’s parking lot, concur that the birds’ numbers are on the rise.

The eastern wild turkey, or to give them their Latin due, meleagris gallopavo silvestri, have been increasing in number on Shelter Island over the last several years, according to Mashomack Preserve Director Mike Laspia.

Their increase is due to another Island resident’s demise. Foxes, who feast on young turkeys, have become scarce over the last several years, Mr. Laspia said. The fox population is cyclical and for a while the cycle was dramatically down because of an outbreak of mange and distemper among the canines.

But nature’s cycle is spinning. The turkeys are safe for now, but the future could become perilous for large flocks, with Mashomack in particular seeing foxes making a comeback.

“A robust red fox population will keep the turkey population in check,” Mr. Laspia said.

Maura Doyle, historic preservation coordinator at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, said that spring brings a typical laying of about 12 to15 eggs. But this past May, 17 day-old hatchlings were counted huddling at the base of a tree, left there by their mother.

“By August, there were only five, “ Ms. Doyle said. “Raccoon, osprey and other critters beside fox find baby turkeys tasty. A turkey hen has to lay a whole lot of eggs in the hope a few will make it to adulthood.”

They’re called turkeys because of a British misunderstanding. Mario Pei, a Columbia University professor of Romance languages, has written that turkeys, though American born and bred, were imported to Britain after a stopover in the Mideast. The Brits called everything coming from that part of the world “turkey,” as in Persian carpets becoming “turkey” carpets.

A group of turkeys, often called a “flock” or a “gobble” are correctly referred to as a “rafter.” At least that’s what author James Lipton, who wrote “An Exaltation of Larks,” maintains and he’s backed up by many ornithologists. Lipton teased out the derivation of the term from a group of logs bound together to form a raft.

The National Wild Turkey Federation has found that there are about seven million wild turkeys roosting in 49 states (Alaska is turkey-free), beginning to approach the numbers before Columbus landed, when there were about 10 million of them.

At the turn of the 20th century it was a close call whether the wild turkey would survive. Hunting and loss of habitat were the factors decimating the American rafter. An act of Congress brought them back when the Wildlife Restoration Act passed in 1937, providing money for wildlife habitat enhancement programs.

According to the New York State Department of Conservation, turkeys were reintroduced to New York from Pennsylvania in 1959 when about 1,400 birds were let loose in the wild. Now, the DEC reported, there are between 250,000 and 300,000 New York birds, so many that the state has exported almost 700 wild turkeys to “Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware and the Province of Ontario, helping to reestablish populations throughout the Northeast.”

Ms. Doyle noted that “some say turkeys are beneficial in that they eat ticks. This may be somewhat true, as young birds — called poults — require a diet higher in protein than at later stages of life and eat more insects during this phase. But by about three months old, they move on to a diet based more on vegetation, and lose interest in munching bugs.”

Mr. Laspia has noticed something new about the Island’s turkeys. He’s seen more white feathers on some of the birds, meaning that the wild ones have been mating with escaped domestic turkeys, which some people raise here.

Their All-American status was famously enshrined by Ben Franklin, who wanted to make the turkey our national bird. It speaks volumes about Franklin’s personality that he preferred the basically gentle but fiercely independent, if cranky, turkey to the predatory bald eagle.

The eagle, Franklin wrote, “is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly … like those among men who live by sharping and robbing … he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little king-bird, not bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district … For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours …”
Peculiar might be the operative word, when it comes to all things turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving.