Turkeys on the grass alas

Friday 13 May 2016 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — War declared on Mexico (1846)

With apologies to the acclaimed poet Gertrude Stein, we in Falmouth have no “pigeons on the grass.” We do, however, have turkeys on the grass. Or at least we did. Alas. 

As we all know, dear readers, Benjamin Franklin proposed the noble turkey as the official national symbol. The turkey lost the vote to the eagle. It’s the American eagle not the American turkey. Who would shop at a clothing store named “American Turkey”? What if it were a turkey and not an eagle that appeared on our currency, seals, and flags? Choosing the eagle over the turkey is one of those rare occasions when a government committee acted wisely. 

Wild turkeys were, it seems, in great supply back in the days of the pilgrims (so were wild cranberries). This proved very handy for the first Thanksgiving Day feast. The pilgrims’ original Thanksgiving Day menu caught on. This was bad news for turkeys (not so much for the cranberries).

According to a State of Massachusetts wildlife biologist, the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was “harvested” in 1851. I have no idea who shot that turkey (or where) but with that tragic death the wild turkey population here in Massachusetts went extinct. Alas. 

Nobody seems to have missed wild turkeys at first. They say wild turkeys are tough and gamey anyway. And besides, plump, tender domesticated turkeys are available in any supermarket. 

But people began to miss their wild turkeys terribly. They wanted their turkeys back. Game and wildlife officials trapped some wandering wild turkeys in other parts of the country and attempted to reintroduce them to Massachusetts. According to reports, 36 wild turkeys were released in western Massachusetts in 1972. In 1996, two more shipments of wild turkeys were released here on Cape Cod — some at the National Seashore on the Lower Cape and some at the former Camp Edwards on the Upper Cape. The latter is not far from my rectory.

The project worked too well. There are now some 30,000 wild turkeys strutting around the State of Massachusetts. It’s reminiscent of the good old days of our pilgrim ancestors. 

 “Isn’t Falmouth nice?” I hear the turkeys gobble as gangs of them meander around downtown Falmouth, occasionally stopping to pose and display their plumage. Visitors halt traffic to take photographs to show their incredulous friends and relatives. For the past few years, wild turkeys have become a huge tourist attraction in downtown Falmouth. Cape Cod is all about tourism.

Falmouth turkeys have even made the national television networks and appeared on the front page of newspapers everywhere. Chatham may have its great white sharks, and Estes Park, Colo., its herds of elk, but Falmouth has become known for turkeys strolling up and down Main Street. 

Local merchants rushed to sell custom-made T-shirts. T-shirts are an ever-popular item on Cape Cod. Forget those “Black Dog” T-shirts from Martha’s Vineyard. Black dogs are so, well — common. Falmouth fashionistas promenade up and down Main Street in trendy “Black Turkey” T-shirts. Very stylish. 

I’ve had my own close encounters with the runner-up national bird. I’ve seen turkeys roosting in the big old tree outside the rectory. I’ve spied one parading up and down like a sentry on the roof ridge of my garage. Who knew turkeys could fly?

Once, while out walking my greyhounds in the front yard, a rafter of turkeys (note to editor: “rafter” is the proper word) formed a wedge-shaped phalanx and began to move in lockstep towards the dogs, all the while making menacing clucks. The dogs quickly turned tail and fled. Greyhounds are not noted for their courage in the face of adversity. 

Early one morning, six turkeys in single file crossed Main Street right in front of my car. They were using the designated crosswalk. That was a photo op that would have gone viral. I missed it.

But the novelty began to wear off. Letter carriers complained the turkeys were preventing mail delivery. Rain and snow and dark of night were tolerable — but never turkeys. Turkeys began harassing pedestrians. A line of turkeys perched on the roof of a local funeral parlor resembled a gathering of vultures. None of this was good for business. 

Then something strange happened. The turkeys began disappearing. Were they being abducted by space aliens? Were they lurking somewhere in the woods? Where had all the turkeys gone?

Being a great fan of the History Channel, I immediately suspected a government conspiracy. When the truth came out, my theory proved correct. 

Back in January, it seems, the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife trapped and euthanasized the alpha male turkey of Falmouth in response to the mounting chorus of complaints. Turkeys are not bird-brains. They had a backup plan. The turkey second in command took charge. At the beginning of April, he too “disappeared.” Now the turkeys have disbanded. 

Some may strive to soar with the eagles, but as for me, I sorely miss the Falmouth turkeys. Alas.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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