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Turkey reprieve

In Lexington, Massachusetts there is a flock of wild turkeys that have something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving - they aren't being served with the cranberry sauce.
/ Source: TravelWorld International Magazine (NATJA)

In Lexington, Massachusetts there is a flock of wild turkeys that have something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving - they aren't being served with the cranberry sauce.

While most people gobble roasted turkey and all the trimmings, its wild counterpart will be feasting on acorns and seeds from neighborhood yards and birdfeeders. The wild guests aren't just visiting for the holiday, either. The hens, toms, and poults, which are young turkeys, are regular inhabitants of the wooded section of a town that boasts about 30,000 ? humans. The wild habitants have called Lexington, a suburb about 10 miles from Boston, home for about three years now.

For some, the turkeys' move into the neighborhood has been a treat. For others, it's an annoyance. For the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, it's a success story that has taken almost two centuries to accomplish.

"We've been aware of them for more than a year," Lexington resident Jackie Rhodes said of the five feathered guests who regularly spend time in her driveway and sometimes make their way to the basement's glass doors to see their reflection. The bright-red-waddled males with black and white feathers are home at the Rhodes's, while a neighbor across the street is host to the females and babies. Bill Rhodes has even seen as many as 20 gathering at a nearby farm.

Although the turkeys ate all the garden tomatoes last summer, the couple said they do not mind. Bill Rhodes put out water during the summer, worried that the birds wouldn't be able to find any. The Rhodes even leave space in the driveway for their regular visitors. They don't feed them, though, "because we don't think that's the right thing to do," Jackie said.

"We've always been respectful of their space, even though we pay the real estate taxes. We would hate to lose these guys. They are part of the family."

Anne Maasland, her husband, Jeremy Stein, and their children were amazed the first few times the turkeys arrived and ran out to greet them. Now they are shooing them away.

"We are not happy with the turkeys anymore," Maasland said. "They make a mess on our lawn."

Worse still, because of that mess her children cannot jump into the raked leaves -- for fear of the turkey's leavings.

But to Marion Larson, outreach coordinator for Mass Wildlife, Lexington's wild turkey presence is a thing of beauty. Although the turkeys' appearance may seem sudden, she said, what people are seeing "is the result of a successful restoration story."

Turkeys were an important food source even before the settlers colonized New England. A turkey's natural habitat is woods and small open areas. As the early settlers started clearing land, and the hunting went unchecked, turkeys started dwindling.

"By 1800," Larson said from her Westborough office, "90 percent of Massachusetts was cleared of forests." By the early 1800s, turkeys were a rarity in Massachusetts, she said, and the state's last wild turkey was killed on Mount Tom near Mount Holyoke in 1851.

Trees eventually grew back after the Civil War, but the turkeys didn't.

Between 1914 and 1947, Massachusetts' wildlife division made at least four unsuccessful attempts to restore wild turkeys to the state. In 1960, they tried again with farm-raised birds left at a Massachusetts reservation.

"Those birds died, too," Larson said. "What we finally learned was that birds that are pen-raised do not survive in the wild. They do not know how to find food and shelter and stay away from predators."

So, in 1972 and 1973 the agency went to New York State, trapped wild turkeys, and released them in Southern Berkshire county.

"Then we waited," Larson said.

Not only did the birds reproduce, the flock expanded and mated with birds from other states conducting the same experiment. The flock became so big, Larson said, that birds from the Berkshires were trapped and released in publicly owned, turkey-friendly habitats.

"The first group of birds released in the northeastern part of the state was in the Groton area," she said of the Massachusetts location. "We stopped transplanting the birds in 1996." Mass Wildlife estimates there are now about 15,000 to 20,000 wild turkeys in the state.

Larson said the turkeys live off whatever food they can find, including ground acorns and birdfeeders.

As it gets colder, they will winter together for safety. Although it's not a preferred method of travel, turkeys can fly, Larson said, and do so to roost in trees.

Larson said she shot a turkey years ago, and "they are very tasty."

But it's too late to get any on the table this year; the turkey hunting season, which requires a hunting license, ended in early November.

There are also more personal restrictions from the Rhodes family and other neighbors who don't want to lose their wild friends.

Larson credits Lexington's successful turkey infiltration with obliging neighbors. "This wouldn't have been possible without the cooperation of landowners who are friendly to outdoor 'people,' " she said.