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. Rare birds, 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.
How the birds got to Shelter Island in the first place is a mystery. The National Wild Turkey Federation has found 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. (Rafter is the correct word for a group of turkeys. At least that’s what author James Lipton, who wrote “An Exaltation of Larks,” maintains, and many ornithologists back him up. Lipton teased out the derivation of the term from a group of logs bound together to form a raft.)
An act of Congress saved the American turkey from extinction, when the Wildlife Restoration Act passed in 1937, providing money for wildlife habitat enhancement programs.
According to the DEC, 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 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.”
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.
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 last word, when it comes to all things turkey.