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Living with turkeys gone wild

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Ellen Goodman
November 1, 2007
— My Thanksgiving prep began in one of those markets where, for a premium, you get a story with your food. Every vegetable, every creature and every jar of jam comes with its own pedigree and memoir.

The best of these tell how the farmer and his pigs, chickens or calves live in a sylvan idyll until the day when … well, they skip that part. These romantic tales of the farm are directed at consumers like me, a slightly uneasy carnivore and committed free-range turkey buyer who prefers to imagine her Thanksgiving dinner roaming happily over the American landscape under a clear blue sky.


Of course, I am aware that the USDA definition of “free-range” means that the turkey only has to be “allowed access to the outside,” even if it’s too institutionalized to actually waddle through a door. Nevertheless, for $3.99 a pound, I deserve a story. Maybe even a DVD.


But this week, returning home with my order slip in my purse, I pulled into my driveway and confronted the real thing: the family of five wild turkeys who have adopted my neighborhood as their free range.


Now those of you who do not live in the Bay Colony where the first Thanksgiving was held, the home of Plymouth Rock and Red Sox Nation, may be surprised to learn that in the past few years, we have had either (1) a population explosion or (2) a plague of wild turkeys.


Nationally, the restoration of the wild turkey has been a wild success story, up from 350,000 in 1950 to somewhere more than 3 million today. In Massachusetts, we were fresh out of this game until 1972, when 37 turkeys were trucked over the border, released in the wilderness and promptly began to beget. There are now 20,000 more turkeys.


But who knew that these birds would take to urban and suburban life? Who knew that these 4-foot-tall, 20-pounders would be found gobbling around backyards, hanging out near Starbucks, and roosting—look, a flying mattress!—in the trees. Who knew they would make routine appearances on the police blotter for behaving like, well, turkeys?


Since I live less than a mile from Fenway Park, I attribute their occasional aggressiveness to the fact that the toms were originally from New York. I attribute their easy life to the fact that you can’t wield a 10-gauge shotgun within range of a streetcar. Their only natural enemies, if you don’t count my postman, are automobiles and the shiny bumpers that reflect back their own worst nightmare.


The wild turkey is hardly the only creature who has learned to get along with us. As Greg Butcher of the National Audubon Society says, “it’s a strange era where every species is either too common or too rare.” The differential, he adds, seems to be the creatures’ “willingness to put up with the human lifestyle.” It turns out that wild turkeys prefer to live on the “edge,” botanically speaking, and even my postage-stamp yard has its edge.


My tale of two turkeys—the free-range bird on my order pad and the wild turkeys on my block—is an example of the odd evolving relationship between human and other nature. On the one hand, there is a growing premium on domestic animals who live more naturally. On the other hand, there is an explosion of wild animals living more tamely.


Consider a third turkey, the one at the White House. No, really. On Tuesday, there will be an annual ceremony for a 21-week-old, 45-pound turkey from Indiana. The creature, raised “using normal feeding and other production techniques”—say what?—will become the 60th of the breed to receive a presidential pardon, although it is unclear what crime he committed.


When the ceremony is over, what is the fate of the liberated poultry? It’s something that would make Jon Stewart’s writers long to cross the picket line. This turkey will be flown. First class. To Disney World. There, he will live out his, um, natural days as an exhibit in the backyard of Mickey’s Country House in Magic Kingdom Park. Meanwhile, the president will undoubtedly be dining on another free-range turkey.


When it comes to figuring out our place in nature, I have begun to think that we’re all living on the edge. Maybe Ben Franklin was right when he said that the wild turkey—not the bald eagle—should be our national bird.


After all, the eagle, in all of its restored glory, soars majestically above the fray. But the turkey is down here, gobbling, squabbling and flourishing, while we try to figure out our place in the pecking order.



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