Place  /  Dispatch

The Return of the Wild Turkey

In New England, the birds were once hunted nearly to extinction; now they’re swarming the streets like they own the place. Sometimes turnabout is fowl play.

Rats should take notice, pigeons ponder their options: wild turkeys have returned to New England. They’re strutting on city sidewalks, nesting under park benches, roosting in back yards—whole flocks flapping, waggling their drooping, bubblegum-pink snoods at passing traffic, as if they owned the place. You meet them at cafés and bus stops alike, the brindled hens clucking and cackling, calling their hatchlings, their jakes and their jennies, the big, blue-headed toms gurgling and gobble-gobbling. They look like Pilgrims, grave and gray-black, drab-daubed, their tail feathers edged in white, Puritan divines in ruffled cuffs.

“There was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many,” the Mayflower arrival William Bradford wrote in his journal, during his first autumn in Plymouth, in 1621. Bradford didn’t eat turkey at that first Thanksgiving, because, really, there was no first Thanksgiving that fall. Also, much of the food that he and his band of settlers ate they had taken, like their land, from the Wampanoag, and at the harvest celebration in question he may have eaten goose. But turkeys abounded. And no reader of the annals of early New England has ever forgotten Bradford’s recounting of the public execution, in 1642, of a boy, aged sixteen or seventeen, hanged to death for having had sex with “a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves, and a turkey.” (A turkey?) Benjamin Franklin, writing in 1784, thought the turkey “a much more respectable Bird” than the bald eagle, which was “a Bird of bad moral Character,” while the turkey was, if “a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.” Alas, by the end of the nineteenth century this particular fowl had nearly become extinct, hunted down, crowded out. The last known wild turkey in Massachusetts was killed in 1851, even as Americans killed passenger pigeons, by the hundreds of thousands, from flocks that numbered in the hundreds of millions. The last passenger pigeon, Martha, named for George Washington’s wife, died in a zoo in Cincinnati, in 1914, and, not long afterward, heartbroken ornithologists tried to reintroduce the wild turkey into New England, without much success. Then, in the early nineteen-seventies, thirty-seven birds captured in the Adirondacks were released in the Berkshires, and their descendants are now everywhere, hundreds of thousands strong, brunching at Boston’s Prudential Center, dining on Boston Common, and foraging alongside the Swan Boats that glide in the pond of Boston Public Garden. They most certainly do not make way for ducklings.