Gone huntin’: Don’t brake for turkeys

A pair of toms gobble and strut for a hen just out of view in the front yard of a home in Tisbury. - Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Martha’s Vineyard is fortunate to have flocks of turkeys; they are grand animals to look at, particularly a tom strutting his stuff in full feathered regalia. However, well-meaning people who treat the official wild game bird of Massachusetts like a parolee from a Thanksgiving dinner granted a new lease on life do these birds no favors.

I get exasperated whenever I am driving along Franklin Street in Vineyard Haven, a notorious turkey hangout, and a driver comes to a complete halt rather than proceeding slowly, to allow the members of a flock, one by one, to pass. “No, don’t stop,” I shout in frustration at the lesson being imprinted on those little turkey brains: Cars and trucks will stop for us — not always.

Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) wildlife biologists stress that turkeys are wild animals and should be treated as such. Nothing drives home that point to a turkey like getting shot at during the state’s fall or spring hunting season, which began Monday and ends May 21. But for a variety of reasons, Island hunters generally pass up the opportunity to take a turkey, and so miss out on delicious table fare.

Other than during the spring mating season, turkeys are all about finding food. As a result, many of the Island’s birds take up permanent residence in neighborhoods where they are fed and unmolested by humans whom, for all their kindness, the turkey may place at the bottom of its pecking order.

Pampering any wild animal — feeding it, sheltering it, or treating it as a pet — is ultimately harmful to wildlife, DFW biologists stress. In the short term for a turkey, perhaps not as harmful as getting hit by a 12-gauge load of No. 5 shot, but certainly in the long term.

Each hen lays from 12 to 15 eggs. Not all survive, but with few natural predators, turkey numbers will continue to increase. Our growing turkey population may one day move from the category of wildlife to unwholesome pests, much like geese, which once migrated south, but now reside on the Island year-round, fouling our fields, polluting our waterways, and damaging farmlands.

The Island population of turkeys may be the descendents of turkey stock raised on game farms and brought to the Vineyard, but no one is certain. They have characteristics of wild Eastern birds, DFW turkey and upland game biologist Dave Scarpitti told me. “It’s a unique thing,” he said.

At the time of colonial settlement, the wild turkey was widespread in Massachusetts, ranging from Cape Cod to the Berkshires, according to the DFW website. As settlement progressed, however, hardwood forests were cut and the range of the turkey began to shrink. By the early 1800s turkeys were rare in the state, and the last known native bird was killed on Mount Tom in 1851.

By the early 1900s, it appeared the turkey might go extinct. The nation’s population stood at about 30,000, a result of habitat loss and overhunting.

Much as they did for deer, elk, and ducks, hunter conservationists and hunter dollars are widely responsible for bringing the turkey back. Founded in 1973, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) is emblematic of the effort. The nonprofit has invested $488 million in wildlife conservation and the preservation of our hunting heritage, and improved more than 17 million acres of wildlife habitat, benefiting hunters and nonhunters alike.

There are now nearly 7 million wild turkeys in every state but Alaska. Following several failed attempts in the ’60s, wild birds were successfully reintroduced in Massachusetts in the ’70s, beginning with Beartown State Forest in southern Berkshire County.

Across much of the turkey’s range, the bird that Benjamin Franklin thought best deserved to be our nation’s symbol is no easy quarry — and turkey hunting generates the same kind of passion fishing season does on the Vineyard. A 2006 federal report estimated that nationally turkey hunters spent $1.5 billion annually on turkey hunting (that includes gas, hotels, equipment, etc). And the number of turkey hunters continues to grow — from 2.6 million turkey hunters in 2006 to 3.1 million in 2011.

In a telephone call from NWTF headquarters in Edgefield, S.C., Tom Hughes, a wildlife biologist and assistant vice president of science and technology, described the hold of turkey hunting. By way of introduction, Tom told me, “I have been hunting turkeys pretty hard since 1978, not missing a season in there, and not missing more days than I can help, so I’ve been a convert for quite some time; let’s put it that way.”

Tom said it is the challenge, and that begins with the nature of turkey vocalizations during the spring mating season. The male gobbles to attract the hens, and the hen yelps in response. In nature, the hen goes to the tom. The challenge the hunter faces is to get the tom to come to him, and within shooting range. Truly wild turkeys are extremely cautious, and very sensitive to any movement. “They have incredible eyesight, and if you move while their head’s in the open, they will see you, you can just count on it,” Tom said.

“The chess match nature of all this is what appeals to me,” he said. “You try to get close enough to the gobbler that you can get his attention, not so close that he’ll see you, and you try to call just enough to get him interested but not so much that he gets suspicious or not so little that he’s not interested … Just the thrill of hearing a wild turkey gobble and call back to you, and you being good enough to close the deal and make it all work out — that has always appealed to me.”

Not much strategy is needed on Martha’s Vineyard. I had not previously hunted turkeys, in part because the fall and spring turkey seasons coincided with other interests, such as fish, deer, and ducks. But I was always interested in the table qualities of a wild turkey. I imagined the meat to be quite dark and tough; I was wrong on both counts.

Last May, a friend, an experienced turkey hunter who does most of his turkey hunting in New York State, where the birds know better than to hang around humans, indulged me with a turkey hunt in the wilds of Chilmark. I met him before dawn, and we walked into the woods until we found a spot where he expected the turkeys, still roosting high in a grove of nearby trees, would pass. He began to call, and the gobblers called back, whether to us I really don’t know. I do know that one gobbler’s lack of concern when he walked by me and I raised my shotgun was a fatal mistake.

I set the turkey breasts in a brine solution, then put them in my Masterbuilt electric smoker for about two hours. The result was beyond my expectations, and much tastier than anything I had ever purchased at a meat counter. My wife and I dined on the best turkey sandwiches we had ever eaten.

The DFW website provides some informative information on how to prevent conflicts with wild turkeys. It advises against allowing turkeys to become habituated to people, and notes that “humans perceived as males may be threatened or challenged by adult gobblers, especially in spring, or may be followed and called at by hens.”

If having a turkey come on to you sexually is not alarming enough, consider that a turkey may put you at the bottom of its pecking order, and try to bully you. For more information on how to interact with the big birds, go to the DFW website.