On a daily walk through Vineyard Haven I see them. There are about six of them, and they appear to be insatiable, foraging in the grass of houses on Clough Lane. On another day, the same group saunters across Franklin Street, forcing traffic to either slow or stop.
Nearby, on Look Street, there are at least a half-dozen more on the lawn of the Look Inn (clever name, by the way); they’re doing the same thing. Pecking at the ground constantly, feeding so voraciously they look like that .gif of Michael Jackson diving into his popcorn bucket.
As Thanksgiving approaches and turkeys dominate the plates of those who celebrate, there are wild turkeys — rafters of them — everywhere on Martha’s Vineyard.
In the mid-1800s, wild turkeys were extirpated. Overhunted. Gone.
In the 1970s, the state sought to fix that, David Scarpitti, the state’s foremost expert on turkeys at MassWildlife, told The Times, by taking turkeys from other states and reintroducing them to the Bay State. In the mid-’90s, turkeys were let loose on the Cape. Since then, the turkey population has boomed, with Scarpitti estimating the population at 30,000 to 35,000 statewide.
“One thing about the Vineyard, we didn’t put them there,” Scarpitti said.
If I could make the sound of squealing brakes in words, I’d do it. Because that stopped me in my tracks.
“The closest place we released were a couple of places on Cape Cod,” Scarpitti said. “It’s not out of the realm that they could have made it on their own, but it’s not likely.”
Turkeys do fly, but it’s usually to roost in trees or to avoid predators. They fly in short, awkward moments — not miles. “They’ll fly short distances, but they’re not setting any records or anything like that, and they’re not migrating long distances,” Scarpitti said. “They can get up off the ground in a single beat of their wings.”
Which raises the question: How did they get to the land of the heath hen?
Gay Stiller of Vineyard Haven has a theory. “When I was growing up here in the ’50s and ’60s, the only turkeys to be seen (other than the ones on the Thanksgiving table) were at the turkey farm where Hillside Village is now,” Stiller wrote in an email. “Going by there on the bus to the high school, we could see them resting up in the trees. There were no wild turkeys that I know of. I guess the theory is that’s where the wild ones came from, but I don’t really know.”
The Vineyard birds don’t look like mainland wild turkeys, Scarpitti said. The plumage doesn’t match. “[Wild turkeys] were probably unintentionally or illegally introduced on the Vineyard,” he said. “Somehow some wild birds got out here and hybridized with domestic birds that somebody had out there.”
Scarpitti has no estimate of how many turkeys there are on the Island, but he’s heard they’re flourishing. There’s good reason. There are virtually no predators on the Island (the occasional car strike doesn’t count as a predator, and the lone coyote has been quiet since a trail camera captured an image in Edgartown in July). Meanwhile, hunters aren’t all that enamored with going after them, though the hunting season is being expanded in 2020, with two additional weeks of turkey hunting by archery before and after the fall shotgun season, Scarpitti said. There is a four-week spring season from late April to mid-May.
Hiding in plain sight
You don’t have to drive far, particularly in Vineyard Haven, to see a turkey. There are the rafters mentioned above, and there is another group on Skiff Avenue known for roosting in a tree there.
Stiller is familiar with those birds, and writes that turkeys may not be as dumb as humans think they are: “A year or so ago I was driving down Skiff Avenue after work. It was still daylight, so it must have been earlier in the fall. Anyway, someone had just recently hit and killed a large turkey, and it was by the side of the road where it had died. The rest of the flock was gathered around, looking like they were in shock and were mourning the dead bird,” she wrote. “One of the large tom turkeys was displaying his feathers the way they do when they’re being protective. I don’t think I’m just projecting human feelings onto the turkeys. I’m pretty convinced that they were mourning the loss of the turkey and were upset by it.”
Scarpitti said there’s a reason we see turkeys in the same locations over and over. They’ve found easy pickin’s, most likely at backyard birdfeeders.
That’s the case for George Michaels of Edgartown. Michaels told The Times he’s had repeat visitors for as long as he can remember. This year’s group is the largest, at eight or nine, Michaels said.
Sure enough, they’re gathered underneath the birdfeeder, getting the seed and suet dropped by birds, Michaels said.
Michaels likes their visits, snapping photographs of them. One year, they even showed up on Thanksgiving Day.
“They’re right on the back terrace — almost knocking at the door,” he said. “Generally when I go out, they scuttle away. They move away, but they let me shoot them.” With a camera, that is.
Scarpitti doesn’t encourage feeding any wild animals, because they tend to get dependent, and in the case of turkeys they can get too comfortable.
Turkeys already do a lot of sparring and jostling within the group, and sometimes when they’re close to humans on a regular basis, that’s when they turn on them. “They try to establish dominance with everyone,” Scarpitti said. The aggressive behavior toward humans that’s been reported in other places — most recently in New Jersey and several years ago in nearby Falmouth — is because turkeys don’t see humans as a threat. “It happens over a significant period of time,” he said. “In a situation where turkeys are being fed and have been for a while, they lose all fear of people and become what we call habituated to people.”
Feeding turkeys and other wildlife is not illegal, but with turkeys the outcomes aren’t as negative as other animals that become reliant on the food. “A lot of times it’s intentional feeding, but sometimes it’s unintentional. Turkeys are opportunistic,” he said. And once they find the food source, like a birdfeeder, they return.
Turkeys can survive several days without eating. So when it snows or it’s frigid, you might not see them come down from their roost.
When they do eat, they’re like your uncle on Thanksgiving who straps on the feedbag. “They’ll eat everything. It doesn’t matter what put in front of them — plant, seed, a predator on other animals, insects. They’ll literally eat anything if they can get it down their gullet,” Scarpitti said. “There’s nothing bad they shouldn’t eat, but I don’t think they should be given any food. Let them work for it on their own.”