Backstory: Not wild about the turkeys

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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").

Across Dover, on Old Farm Road, another McMansion mother not on speaking terms with her turkey-loving neighbor started videotaping aggressive birds after she unloaded groceries from her car one day and returned to find a tom - caruncles and snood ablaze in red - gobbling at the open door where her baby was strapped in. (Note: While moms just don't believe it, national turkey experts and local police generally pooh pooh such "attacks," saying turkeys aren't after babies; they're after the reflection of themselves in car windows, and are easily scared off if a human takes an assertive stand.)

Since Big Daddy's demise, a tentative turkey truce has materialized on Centre Street, agree the mom and McKenzie, who report less aggressive behavior and fewer calls to police. And the turkeys continue to roost there - like specters of Thanksgiving dinners past - in huge pine trees. They use busy Centre Street as the long runway they need to lift off on five-foot wingspans to glide into trees and fold themselves up for the night.

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Americans who hadn't seen wild turkeys in generations now increasingly encounter them. The New York Times reported in 2003 a turkey on an upper West Side balcony, and the Kansas City Star last spring told of a gobbler flying into a suburban living room. Disputes aside, America is unusually sentimental about a bird it slaughters and devours more than 40 million of each Thanksgiving.

"There's an element of absurdity that keeps [turkeys] out of the adorable deer and bunny category," says Hannah Holmes, author of "Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn." "But it's a very totemic animal for North America because for so long they were so rare. It's still a little awe inspiring to see."

Reverie over what Ben Franklin wanted to be the national bird is, in fact, common. James Earl Kennamer, of the National Wild Turkey Federation, says: "A turkey at his magnificent self" - in full iridescent strut and drumming (an explosively loud release of air) - is so surprisingly splendid that even veteran big game hunters are rendered "literally unable to shoot." The birds are also remarkably fast: To capture them with net guns, for example, authorities have to use Howitzer rocket powder rather than gunpowder, which allows them to launch the nets at 450 feet per second.

In Endwell, N.Y., retired biology teacher Jay Decatur was so grieved by the disappearance of the neighborhood wild turkey, Tomás, on Thanksgiving eve (coincidence?) two falls ago, that his wife commissioned an oil portrait of the bird (from a photo). It captures Tomás' contradictions - "so ugly and so beautiful" - says Mr. Decatur of the bird that waited for him each morning on his porch, roosted on car tops, and chased the mail carrier.

And not a mile from the Dover wars, in Needham, Mass., there's what could only be called a form of turkey Kumbaya. School bus driver Nat Reisner has a daily ritual with a flock along Charles River Road. "[The turkeys] are Mother Nature at her best. When we see them, it's a sure sign we're going to have a great day," says the driver of bus No. 15, which daily resounds with a chorus of grade-schoolers singing, "If you love Mr. Turkey, clap your hands...."

Perhaps appropriately, turkey totemism is intense this time of year. "Thanksgiving brings everything this country is about into one place at one time," says Al Stewart, a Michigan wildlife specialist, "and turkeys are an extension of that."

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