A huge dark lump was on a branch of the cottonwood across the river. As I wiped the morning blur from my eyes, it launched itself with stubby wings beating. Barely in defiance of gravity, it coasted to my side of the river. Just over the bank, out of sight, but somewhere beneath the willow, it landed.
“Turkey,” I announced to the somnolent household. I continued watching through the kitchen window, hoping for another glimpse. Instead, from across the river I saw more brown lumps on a downward arc - coming from the pine trees where they had roosted during the night - to the old farm field and orchard. I counted fifteen.
From the spruce behind my neighbor’s several more came down with a flight pattern that seemed to say, “Trust me, I really am in control.” They joined the first bird, over the bank and out of sight. I watched, hoping they might wander up to where I could have a better look - come around and clean up under the feeders. They did not.
My backyard experience is not unique. I receive regular reports during the winter from people mesmerized by flocks of turkeys visiting their yards. It is a relatively new phenomenon, and one which we came close to losing forever.
Turkeys are native only to the Western Hemisphere. There are two species - our widely distributed North American Wild Turkey (with six recognized sub-species), and the Ocellated Turkey of the subtropical lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Wild Turkey is our largest North American game bird, and one of only two domesticated birds originating in the Western Hemisphere. The Muscovy Duck is the other.
The burgeoning population of the English colonists demanded food. The need outstripped what they could provide for themselves, and so they hunted. In New England, turkeys were abundant, and tasty, and they were heavily hunted. Relentless hunting and elimination of much of their forested habitat resulted in the Wild Turkey disappearing from much of its original range, especially in the northern and northeastern parts of the U.S.
Forbush describes their retreat: “Shooting and trapping the birds at all times soon had its inevitable effect, and the Turkey rapidly retired before the advance of settlement, and soon it could be found only in the wildest parts of the country. In Massachusetts Turkeys were most numerous in the oak and chestnut woods, for there they found most food. They were so plentiful in the hills bordering the Connecticut Valley that in 1711 they were sold in Hartford at one shilling four pence each, and in 1717 they were sold in Northampton, Mass., at the same price. In the last part of the eighteenth century most of the Wild Turkeys had been driven west of the Connecticut River.”
The last turkey on Mt. Tom was reported (and shot) in 1851; a few may have remained on Mt. Holyoke at that date. “Since then the Wild Turkey has disappeared from Canada and from most of the Atlantic seaboard, although a few are still to be found in Virginia and other Southern States, and it is still common in some western localities.”
Forbush concludes his account: “its great size and beauty contribute to make it, to my mind, the noblest game bird in the world. It is destined to vanish from the earth unless our people begin at once to protect it.”
I am not a hunter. Hunting was not a part of the urban culture in which I grew up. But I am grateful to hunters and sportsmen. Many of the places I go and experiences I enjoy in the out-of-doors are possible because of the fees, licenses, and taxes they have paid, and the attention they have given to conservation, habitat, and environmental health. Turkeys wandering our fields and woods are but one of those benefits we enjoy as a result of their efforts. Conservation organizations, wildlife agencies, sportsmen, hunters, hikers, naturalists and bird watchers probably have more goals in common than they have differences.