Around the Island

Turkey Island: Everything —maybe — you want to know about Meleagris gallopavo

In certain parts of the Island, it seems as if nature has gone haywire, and our human habitat is being overrun. We’re talking turkeys here.

Although it’s hard to find any hard evidence, the flock of wild turkeys seems to have grown over the last few years. It’s unclear why, but one of the town’s animal control officers, Beau Payne, said linking the decline of the fox population — the turkey’s natural predator — on the Island might be a reason why there are turkey traffic jams nearly every day at the corners of Jaspa and Midway roads.

But “might” is the operative word, Officer Payne cautioned, adding that “all animal populations are dynamic, fluctuating with the availability of resources and the presence of predators, among other factors. It would be irresponsible to assume — or let others assume — any one factor was singularly responsible for a population change without scientific verification.”

But all in all, Officer Payne said the turkey population appears to continue to do well here, because foxes have been laying low.

“The fox population seems to be near it’s cyclical low now which has likely bolstered poult [young fowl] survival,” he said.

Other Island predators are playing a ”smaller role” on the turkey population, Officer Payne said. These include birds of prey such as great horned owls, which can kill adult turkeys. Racoons also make turkeys’ lives miserable whenever they can, Officer Payne said, primarily “through nest destruction.”

What Officer Payne has described as “a tasty solution,” to reduce the numbers of gobblers is that the turkey season is open now and will run to Dec. 4 this year. “Hunters may use a bow or shotgun, providing discharge distances are observed,” he said, while noting only one bird may be taken per hunter during the season, “making hunting them a relatively ineffective means of control.”

Rara avis

Our turkeys are really not a problem, but can become annoying if a number of them decide to kick back on your patio or porch. One method to keep them from roosting near your favorite porch chair, or strutting around the patio and interfering with the plants, is fencing, but that might not be too effective either, Officer Payne said.

Even though these comedians of the avian world look clumsy, they can fly, so hopping a fence is no problem. When they take wing they’re as graceful as any bird, sometimes reaching speeds up to 50 miles an hour.

Officer Payne advised Islanders to treat turkeys the same as any wildlife: “Observe and enjoy, but do not interact unless absolutely necessary.”

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.

Mysterious beings

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 with the Wildlife Restoration Act passed in 1937, providing money for wildlife habitat enhancement programs.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (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.”

Born in the U.S.A.

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.

Happy Thanksgiving.