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Talking turkey: How the birds got here is a mystery

Turkeys on a Midway Road lawn on Tuesday morning. The population of the birds is on the rise.

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO| Turkeys on a Midway Road lawn on Tuesday morning. The population of the birds is on the rise.

If you think you’re seeing more wild turkeys strutting around the Island, your eyes aren’t playing tricks. Reports from Sylvester Manor, the Mashomack Preserve and eyewitness accounts from the Reporter’s parking lot concur that the birds’ numbers are on the rise.

The eastern wild turkey’s — or to give them their Latin due, meleagris gallopavo silvestri — population spike over the last several years is due to another Island resident’s demise. Foxes, which feast on young turkeys, have become scarce here. The fox population is cyclical, Mashomack Preserve Director Mike Laspia has said, 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.

Turkey puzzles
How the birds got to Shelter Island in the first place is a mystery.

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

But 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 flocks. An act of Congress brought them back when the Wildlife Restoration Act passed in 1937, providing money for habitat enhancement programs.

According to the New York State Department of Conservation, turkeys were re-introduced 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 parts of Canada.

Writer Jo-Ann Robotti, in a feature article published several years ago in the Reporter, recounted that about 20 years ago the DEC asked the Shelter Island Town Board if it would consider re-introducing wild turkeys here. “But there was a public outcry — people were concerned that they would become a public nuisance like the deer — and it wasn’t done, although East Hampton, Southampton and Brookhaven did allow release,” Ms. Robotti wrote.

She tracked down a November 25, 2001 article in the New York Times reporting that a team led by Mark Lowery of the state DEC that captured 79 wild turkeys in upstate New York, tagged the birds and released them in Suffolk County, including 30 that released into near Montauk. Others were set free near Shirley. Mr. Lowery was reported as saying that some turkeys scattered across the county, with sightings as far away as Calverton.

Mike Scheibel, natural resources manager at Mashomack, said this week that it’s still “a puzzle” why the turkeys have settled down amongst us without the benefit of the state’s ”trap and transfer” program. Birds introduced across Suffolk county “have proliferated and built strong populations,” Mr. Scheibel said, so strong, in fact, that the state has reintroduced turkey hunting in the county.

Islanders have raised turkeys in the past, and it’s inevitable that some have escaped their pens and roosts, he added. As Mr. Laspia has said, wild birds could have migrated from the North and South forks and joined forces with the domestic turkeys that had gone over the hill.

Bird watching
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, strolling 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.

Blame it on the Brits
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,” is 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 bird

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.

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