Turkey burghers – An Irishman’s Diary about the reviving fortunes of America’s true native bird
Once all but wiped out in New England, turkeys are all over the place again now
The bald eagle is a US national symbol, as you probably know. And for many Americans, its suitability for that role was only enhanced by a video clip from 2015 when one of the birds attacked Donald Trump, then a mere presidential candidate, during a photoshoot.
But on a visit to Boston this week, I was struck by the ubiquity there of another large winged species, also native to those parts, the wild turkey.
In at least five instances, out-of-control turkeys have had to be shot by police. If you ever wondered what a turkey-shoot was, now you know
Once all but wiped out in New England, turkeys are all over the place again now. They stroll around gardens, much as hens do in country towns here. Except they’re a lot bigger than hens. And when they clash with non-feathered residents, as they sometimes will, they’re also more aggressive.
According to Associated Press, Boston city officials have been dealing with an upsurge in turkey-related complaints in recent months.
These range from the birds vandalising gardens or intimidating pets to outright attacks on people seen as invading their territory.
Male turkeys are called “toms”. And in one case AP reported a woman having to defend herself against a “big tom” – no relation to any Irish country-and-western singer – by “whacking it several times with a shovel”. But in at least five instances, out-of-control turkeys have had to be shot by police. If you ever wondered what a turkey-shoot was, now you know.
When I spotted the first ones from a distance, in someone’s front garden, I thought they were decorative peacocks.
A second glance dispelled that illusion. Whatever else they might be, turkeys are not among the more attractive bird species. You’d have to be a mother to love one.
So it was tempting to see their resurgence in the land of the bald eagle as a symbol for the ugliness of Trump’s America. Alas for handy metaphors, the trend didn’t start with last November’s election.
Even in Boston, the revival has been under way for a few years now.
In other parts of the US, it goes back decades. Nor is it the only wild species recolonising towns and cities, attracted by the easy supply of food. Urban foxes are on the rise there too, as in some places are coyotes and, in more remote suburbs, bears.
But wandering around in daylight, openly, turkeys look more at home than other species. And maybe they are, given that their farm-reared cousins will be such a central feature of America’s great annual feast day, Thanksgiving, next month.
Their usefulness as food aside, the birds do have admirers, even on the aesthetic level.
As with peacocks, male turkeys are more colourful than their female counterparts. Thus AP quoted one woman as saying they can be “quite beautiful” in spring, when displaying.
Perhaps I haven’t see them at their best.
There have even been people who think the turkey would be a more suitable national bird than the eagle. These did not necessarily include the artist Anatole Kovarsky, who once reimagined the presidential seal with the former. The result featured on the cover of the New Yorker magazine in 1962, ironically, when thanks to a famous Bostonian, the presidency was at the all-time height of its glamour.
But a US founding father, Benjamin Franklin, did argue the case for the turkey as national symbol, albeit only in a letter to his daughter.
In this Franklin affected to regret that the eagle had been chosen, because it was a “bird of bad moral character”, living dishonestly off the work of others.
He cited the eagle’s habit of watching from a tree near a river, “too lazy to fish for himself”, while a hawk labours to catch something; “and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it”.
The eagle was also a “rank coward”, Franklin claimed, capable of being driven off by spirited smaller birds.
By contrast, he thought the turkey a “much more respectable” animal, and “a true original native of America” besides.
Yes, it could appear a “little vain & silly” betimes. But he noted, as modern-day residents of Boston attest, that it becomes especially aggressive when faced with the colour red. This was its clinching virtue as a US patriot, circa 1776. The turkey was a “Bird of Courage”, concluded Franklin, “and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a Red Coat on”.