We Don’t Need Thanksgiving to Be Talking Turkey Around Here

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A Shelter Island wild turkey looks for a handout at the ferry line a few years aqo at South Ferry. Peter Boody photo

Nobody on eastern Long Island needs Thanksgiving and the arrival of the holiday season to be thinking about turkeys.

Once extinct on Long Island, they now seem to be all over the place now: looking adorable, if you’re a fan, or bizarre, if not; pecking at mast and bugs along the roadsides; obliviously crossing busy highways in front of traffic; profusely pooping on patios, backyards and parked cars from their nightly roosts; pecking at their reflections in back-deck sliders and the chrome wheel hubs of classic pickup trucks.

For all that, a lot of people do seem to like them. Asked if she’d been hearing about a rise in turkey-human runs-ins in Bridgehampton, where she chairs the town’s Citizen Advisory Committee, Pamela Harwood said by email, “Au contraire. Everyone I know loves the turkeys. One of their diet staples is ticks. With all the tick-related diseases on the East End, this is a major benefit having these creatures visit your property.”

Unlike deer, she said, they do not eat or destroy gardens, shrubs and native plants. “They are really adorable and beautiful and watching their family-oriented behavior is fascinating,” she added, reporting that a large “family” of turkeys regularly visits her property “and I have never noticed any large droppings as I do from deer or any kind of plant or property damage.”

A bit less of a fan is local journalist Stephen Kotz of Bridgehampton, who one morning found a layer of grassy detritus on the hood of his station wagon. Underneath he found a pattern of deep peck marks in the car’s paint. Why the birds made that brushy deposit on the hood of his car remains a mystery.

Another local newsman has noticed a sharp increase in turkey sightings where he lives in North Haven over the past year, including flocks regularly crossing Route 114 — which is a roulette wheel for deer hits.

Dead turkeys by the roadside are a much rarer sight than deer carcasses. Deer burst into the road in a flash. Turkeys move at a slow, what-me-worry pace. That and the fact that they usually travel in an easy-to-spot flock allows drivers to stop or steer clear.

A patrolling flock passes through that writer’s own wooded yard every week or so. Occasionally they roost in the beech trees and white oaks around his property. When they concentrate above the backyard, they leave the brick patio splattered with a shotgun pattern of very large, loose deposits.

Even so, they can be fun to have around. At dawn one dark morning a few weeks ago, taking his dog out for his morning walk at daybreak, the North Haven writer heard an odd note up high in the trees, a single, low, soft “eeep,” soon followed by another “eeep” coming from another direction, followed by another and another.

The birds must have been holding a confab to decide it was time to get up and start another day. Suddenly they were launching one by one from their roosts in noisy descents, their glide ratios no better than the Space Shuttle’s. For a full minute, our observer was in the middle of a LaGuardia-for-Turkeys at the end of his driveway, each bird careening away after its clumsy touchdown in different directions like characters in a Loony Tune.

Several other sources also said they’d heard no complaints about the birds. Veteran East End naturalist Larry Penny of Noyac knew of none. Frank Quevedo, executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton, said the same. Except for the usual stories about birds pecking at their reflections in glass doors, “I haven’t heard much about problems. I like seeing them,” he said.

“We’ve walked in the Long Pond Greenbelt and been charged by a female protecting her poults,” he recalled, “just as mute swans will when you get too close. But as for complaints about nuisances, I haven’t heard much at all. Remember: all wildlife is looking to expand their range and acclimate and adapt to their environment. They’re not nuisances. They’re just trying to survive.”

“I’m not hearing anything about them being a nuisance,” said Jeremy Samuelson, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island. “They’re really quite comfortable in their own skins,” he said admiringly. “They’re slightly oblivious of what’s going on around them but they’re quite intelligent.” He noted that hunters say they are a very wily and challenging prey; and “anyone who has actually plucked one is very quickly disappointed by how little bird and actual meat is there.”

North Haven Mayor Jeff Sander snapped this shot of a flock in a neighbor’s yard last week.

Mayor Jeff Sander of North Haven is another observer who hasn’t heard of any problems. He recently took some photos of a flock he’d found patrolling a neighbor’s yard just because he was so impressed by its numbers. He estimated there were between 20 and 30 birds working the neighborhood.

Extinct on Long Island for 150 years, except for pockets of semi-domesticated birds here and there including North Sea and Shelter Island, they were first successfully reintroduced to the South Fork in 1993 and 1994, when the DEC released 49 wild turkeys here from upstate New York, according to East End naturalist and writer Mike Bottini. Twenty-five were let go in Hither Hills State Park in Montauk and 24 went to Southaven County Park in Brookhaven, he reported in a 2016 column about wild turkeys.

Their reintroduction in Montauk more than 25 years ago, followed by subsequent follow-up releases, was wildly successful. “The mosaic of woodland preserves and farm fields, our formidable mast (acorn, beech, hickory) crop, and our mild winters seem to be well-suited to this prolific species,” Mr. Bottini wrote in his 2016 column for The Southampton Press; “offspring of these reintroductions have spread far and wide. Over the 12 years since the last release, that total of 78 birds released on Long Island has swelled to an estimated population of 3,000 gobblers.

By 2009, Mr. Bottini wrote, the state DEC had decided the turkey population was robust enough for a hunting season. This year’s is the longest yet on Long Island, running from November 16 until 29.

Wild turkey from the East Hampton and Amagansett areas, according to hunter Terry O’Reardon of East Hampton, is delicious. “There’s no comparison” to the way their bulbous domesticated cousins taste, he said. For one thing, “It’s a wild bird. It does not have that plump breast of white meat. It’s sweet and nutty but very, very lean.” That’s because it’s out there fighting for survival, he added, eating nuts, berries and insects. “The legs and wings, he said, “are very tough.”

Don’t help them out with a handout, Mr. Bottini wrote. Too much of that and the nuisance problem would explode.

Hens off the side of Wainscott Harbor Road in Wainscott. Peter Boody photo

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