Turkeys strut their stuff; most students appreciative

Once vanished from Massachusetts, now they are commonplace

It’s hard to miss the turkeys strutting around the campus this fall.

“They’re huge,” says David Frederick ’11 of Cumberland, Maine, who has seen turkeys aplenty in his home state. “And they have these huge wattles.”

Not long ago, turkeys were unheard of on the Brandeis campus, but today they are commonplace. First-year student Tom Phan of Lowell, Mass., reports that during orientation incoming students were warned to leave them alone. Not long after,  “I was walking near the police station and turkeys were blocking the stairway. They wouldn’t move. I walked in the most roundabout way to avoid them.”

“I was pretty surprised,” says Ryan Fanning ’11 of St. Louis. “Some turkeys used to walk by my window and that really freaked me out. Honestly I’m kind of afraid of them, so I give them a wide berth. If I was attacked by one, I’d run away real fast.”

A good decision, but better still would be to turn and shout and flail your arms, say Marion Larson of MassWildlife, the state department that deals with fisheries and wildlife issues. Turkeys can be aggressive, Larson says, advising people to walk purposefully past them. Otherwise male turkeys, especially in the spring mating season will try to establish a pecking order, says Larson. "They may decide you need to be put in your place."

Campus security, though, says there have not been any reports of the birds acting like thugs. "They mostly just scratch and gobble," says Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan.

First-year Jesse Hart of Worthington, Ohio, says he saw his first wild turkey ever on campus this fall. “One day I was walking down to Shapiro, talking to my mom on my cell phone and out of the blue there were some turkeys. I said to her, ‘Mom, guess what else I get in college. Turkeys!'”

The modern farm-raised turkeys with extra white meat, common in stores today, are a far cry from the wild turkeys our ancestors ate. The idea of eating the kind of turkeys scratching and strutting on campus is not palatable to many students, who figure that the meat would be “gamey,” but Fanning was not put off. “I’d try it. I’ve tried game and venison and I think I’d love it,” he said.

Larson of Mass Wildlife says farm-raised birds get little exercise; she has eaten wild turkeys like those seen on campus and says that "they are delicious, but you have to be careful not to overcook a wild bird. Their legs are tough because they actually use them."

Turkeys loom large in American culture. Here, from the state agency Mass Wildlife, are some little known and often misconstrued facts about wild turkeys:

  • The first Thanksgiving was likely celebrated in October, not November, and turkey was nothing special. While turkey was eaten at the first Thanksgiving, it was not the highlight of the meal that it is today. It was served alongside — and given equal billing to — fish, shellfish, deer, corn, squash, berries and other native foods.
  • At the time of the Pilgrims, turkeys were plentiful in Massachusetts. As land was cleared, turkey populations declined. By 1800 turkeys were very rare, and by the middle 1800s they had disappeared from the state completely.
  • Many attempts were made to reintroduce turkeys to Massachusetts in the early- and mid-20th century, but it was not until 1978 that a restoration effort in the Berkshires, in the western part of the state, was officially declared a success. Over the next 18 years, through 1996, turkeys were taken from that expanding Berkshire flock and released in ten counties in eastern and central Massachusetts. Descendants of those turkeys are what we are seeing today on the Brandeis campus, the eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), which is native to the eastern half of the United States.

Turkeys lay their eggs on the ground, making them vulnerable to raccoons, skunks, crows, snakes and other predators. The raccoon population was decimated by a rabies epizootic in the 1980s and ‘90s, just as turkeys were being reintroduced in eastern Massachusetts, which may have contributed to the success of live births of baby turkeys, called “poults.”

Joshua Seiden '12 from New York has grown accustomed to Brandeis’ resident turkeys. “I like to remind them that it’s Thanksgiving. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen then in awhile. Maybe they know it’s Thanksgiving.”  But, he says, “If the question is ‘for turkeys’ or ‘against turkeys,’ I’m for turkeys.”

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