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Backstory: Not wild about the turkeys

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 21, 2005


When Big Daddy bit the dust on Centre Street last year, suspicions of murder were rampant. After all, he was the leader of one of several brazen street gangs that have muscled into pockets of this horsy Boston suburb and held residents at ... beak point.

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As in many suburbs nationwide, where McMansions meet nature, a wild turkey war is simmering here. Some neighbors are not on speaking terms, torn by turkey pros and cons. Backpack-laden kindergartners struggle to catch school buses before territorial gobblers catch them; churchgoers, post-office patrons, and brawny construction workers are routinely held hostage in their cars by scolding toms; unsuspecting joggers are followed by trotting turkey shadows reminiscent of Jurassic Park raptors; rush-hour traffic can be stalled by bumper- pecking broods. More than once here on Centre Street, residents say, the state environmental authorities have deployed camouflaged SWAT teams that act a lot like FBI sting operations: Officers hide behind trees with net guns, hoping to subdue their suspects without igniting an animal rights backlash. (The ubiquitous turkeys never seem to show up on those days.)

So, few on Centre Street were surprised when Big Daddy, a 20-pound-plus tom, was left mortally wounded on Janet McKenzie's front lawn. Ms. McKenzie, a lifelong Dover resident, is the protector of Big Daddy's six survivors and taught the Catholic priest across the street how to herd them away from church doors with a broom. She wanders among them in her yard, and keeps feather mementos of Big Daddy, with whom she felt "a rapport." She thinks the bird's death was no accident.

Her neighbors are equally convinced it was vigilantism - but they're not troubled at all and, in fact, wouldn't mind seeing the rest of the flock on platters instead of porches.

So, the noble American turkey story - the bird of pilgrims' pride and kindergarten paste-and-construction paper - has come down to this: a suburban whine of conflicting values (development vs. nature vs. the desire not to have peeping toms on your deck).

It's perhaps not surprising. The comeback of the wild turkey is a major conservation success, from a low of 30,000 nationwide at the turn of the century to an estimated 7 million today. But while the pilgrims of Puritan times would smile gratefully and pull out a musket, the pilgrims of Peg Perego suburbia pull out a hockey stick (the weapon of choice to ward off feathered intruders for 3 out of 4 stroller-pushing moms) and call police.

"There's a point where nature and people can't live in harmony," says one Centre Street mother of a 3 1/2 year old who stands wattle-high to a four-foot tom. "I was calling the police every day [in the Big Daddy era]. It's scary, because if I'm carrying a baby and a bag of groceries and they run right at me, there'd be nothing I could do," says the woman, who like every other antiturkey Dover resident requested anonymity (some fear "retaliation").