TURKEYS ABOUT TOWN

I'M not sure this is really a Thanksgiving story. But it does involve turkeys, who have become (none to their benefit, I'd say) ``deeply associated'' with Thanksgiving.

And it's a true story. But being an editor by profession, I disclose right now that I took down no notes on this subject over the course of the last year and recorded no interviews on a tape recorder. All conversations are mere approximations, based on what I remember of them.

The story begins in our living room shortly after Thanksgiving last year.

``I've just been talking with Laurianne,'' my wife announced, rushing in through the front door. ``Guess what's been spotted on our road? Wild turkeys!''

``That's nice,'' I responded from the sofa, flashing a quick glance away from the football game on TV.

``Well, we think they're wild. But they could have escaped from a farm.''

``Ummm. That's true,'' I muttered, staring at the TV.

``Laurianne thinks wild turkeys are different from the domestic ones. Leaner. Different markings. I'm going to look them up in my bird book.''

``Yes, good.... Well, that should tell you something about them, all right,'' I offered, ever-so-subtly leaning around her to catch the next play.

``Isn't that ironic? I mean that they showed up the day after Thanksgiving?'' she mused.

``Hmmmmmmm,'' I said.

That was the end of the turkey story - or so I thought.

A few days later I was parking the car in our driveway. I should say that our backyard is surrounded by trees: pines, oaks, and maples. It's a typical New England landscape. We live about 25 miles west of Boston in Holliston, Mass. I guess you'd call it a suburb. But that's part of the story. You see, some of my neighbors like to think we're a small rural town, with woods, fields, and all God's critters close at hand. Others think we're a suburb: convenient location, good schools, and low crime - no fuss, no muss.

ANYWAY, I had just gotten out of the car and was looking into the backyard. Suddenly, something was sailing down out of the trees, a giant, dark what-is-it headed right for me. In an instant, my mind tried to categorize it. One of the evil Winged Monkeys from the Wizard of Oz? No, wait, just the biggest bird I'd ever seen.

A few seconds later, a second bird, nearly as large, swooped down from another tree. Then a third. They began pecking the ground a few feet away, feeding on something, and ignoring me.

The turkeys!

It wasn't long after that turkey sightings became all the rage on our street. We especially shared information with Laurianne, who lives across the street and raises dogs, cats, sheep, and geese, along with any wild thing that comes her way and needs help.

We learned that wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are more slender than the domestic ones bred for their meat. And their tail tips are chestnut colored, not white like their domestic cousins. The sac hanging from their chins is called a wattle; the fleshy projection on their foreheads is a snood or dewbill; the bumps at the base of their throats are caruncles. The males are toms or gobblers; the females, hens; the young are called poults.

They sleep in trees, feed on the ground, can fly up to 1/4 mile, but are just as likely to run away as take to the air. They're the largest game bird in North America. Turkey fossils date back to 2.5 million BC. Aztec and Zuni Indians bred them centuries ago for both food and feathers. Hunters nearly wiped them out in our area by the early 19th century, the birds being particularly easy and rewarding prey. But in recent years, they've made a comeback.

It was nice to have something special about our street, a topic for conversation, a reminder to ourselves to notice the natural world.

But winter, which keeps us inside a lot here in New England, stepped in. At any rate, the turkey mania died down by Christmas. Until spring.

That's when the tom (the other two were hens) began pestering people. The stories multiplied: He chased the mailman; he chased the garbage man; he scared a five-year-old riding her bicycle. He stood in the road and blocked traffic, fanning his tail feathers (probably trying to impress his hens) and daring motorists to shoo him aside.

First the local newspaper ran a story on the ``turkey tempest'' in Holliston. A local television station did a tongue-in-cheek piece, tracking down terrible Tom through our neighbor's backyard. Then came the big time: CNN beamed a segment on the turkeys around the world. The Associated Press sent out a story that who-knows-how-many newspapers picked up with the headline ``Big Birds Run Afoul.'' I even had the odd experience of being interviewed on my front lawn by a freelance writer sent to find the turkeys. ``Where do they usually hang out?'' he asked. I was tempted to pull his leg just a little, maybe send him on a wild-turkey-chase across town. But I guess I had been on too many writing assignments myself to be that mean. I told him what little I knew.

That's when Part II of the story began. Driving down our street, I spotted the two hens. But something strange was happening. The tall grass around them was alive with movement. As they strutted out onto a lawn I could see they were surrounded by scurrying balls of fluff. Chicks. Five, eight, 10, 15, no, wait, count again. It was hard to keep track. Seventeen, I think!

For some of our neighbors, the sight was one of those joys of spring, a celebration of new life. But for others it was the final straw, proof of an animal-pest problem now gone completely out of control.

The selectmen, our town officials, were confronted on the issue. What were they going to do about these wild animals on the streets? No one really wanted to see them hurt (well, one fellow apparently offered to shoot them and give the meat to the needy).

The selectmen were trapped in a politically delicate situation, not wanting to displease nature lovers or tidy suburbanites. The Animal Rescue League of Boston stepped in. The league agreed to trap the birds, who had obviously become quite comfortable with humans, and give them a home until they were ``adopted'' as pets. One day we got a call from Laurianne. ``They came and got them today,'' she said.

NO more looking for Tom and the girls. No more checking to see how much the poults had grown or where they'd been spotted last and by whom.

I have to admit my thinking about turkeys has changed a bit. They seem more than awkward homely birds fit only for a dinner table. I'll still eat the main course on Thanksgiving, but maybe with a little less gusto.

Oh yes, there's one thing I forget to mention. The rescue league didn't get all of them. One of the poults comes to Laurianne's deck to visit. Altogether, we've spotted two toms and three hens still on the lose.

Let's see: At an average brood of 14 chicks per hen, next spring there should be....

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