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Down the Road

Wild turkeys, fun fowl
By Milton M. Gross
Nov 4, 2012 - 3:50:12 AM

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The other day we watched the red-hot competition in our dooryard between the flock of about 15 turkeys and a single gray squirrel.

The turkeys, of course, wanted to gobble down all the sunflower seeds we had put down for the squirrels. Most of the gray and red squirrels understood that the turkeys were (a) a lot bigger than they were and (b) apparently a lot hungrier.

Except for that one gray squirrel, who was big enough for us to realize he hadn't missed any meals this summer or fall.

He may have thought he was a lot bigger, though, or that he was just another turkey. He (or she), probably he from his size, had positioned himself in the pile of seeds right below the squirrel-proof bird feeder and in the center of about six turkeys.

Thanksgiving! No, no, no, no! Milt Gross photo.

All were apparently after the same seed -- out of thousands scattered around the yard in four or five piles.

The turkeys made threatening gestures, and the squirrel just looked at them with his beady little eyes and threatened to...well, we weren't sure what he was threatening. But he didn't leave, they kept poking around, giving him dirty looks, and eventually left for their daily turkey naps.

I wondered from where they came both each morning and, you know, from where they came before they were around here. Around here we will never know they're napping places. They appear, and, if you do something threatening such as drive the car into the driveway, they magically disappear.

But it's where they came from over the years that puzzled us. Back in the 1980s, I heard a Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife game warden give a speech about turkeys. This was in South Paris, about as far north as our home but about 200 miles farther west. This expert said turkeys were in Southern Maine but would never come "this far" north because of the climate.

Aha, my first clue: either climate change is real and happening or those turkeys are some dumb birds. Too dumb to stay out of the deep snow, which, by the way, we haven't had for at least a half-dozen years.

Wikipedia told me that what will stop turkeys from moving north is deep snow. But they're here, Hancock County, the land of used-to-be deep snow.

Wikipedia also told me how they got here and from where by stating, "Historically, wild turkeys existed in significant numbers in York and Cumberland Counties, and perhaps in lower numbers eastward to Hancock County. From the time of settlement until 1880, agricultural practices intensified until farmland comprised about 90% of York and Cumberland counties.

"The reduction in forest land and unrestricted hunting are believed to be the two most important factors leading to the extirpation of native wild turkeys in Maine in the early 1800s. Since 1880, many farms have been abandoned and the land has reverted back to forest. By 1970, only 15% of York and Cumberland Counties remained farmland. This reversion of thousands of acres of farmland to wooded habitat greatly enhanced prospects for reestablishing turkeys into their former range."

Which is where that DIFW guy said they were in the 1980s.

"Attempts to reintroduce turkeys to Maine began in 1942 when the Department of Inland Fisheries and Game released 24 birds on Swan Island, in Sagadahoc County. In the 1960s, fish and game clubs in Bangor and Windham made similar attempts to reestablish turkey in their areas using imported birds raised from part wild and part game-farm stocks. None of these attempts succeeded in establishing populations of wild birds," relates Mr. Wikipedia.

"In 1977 and 1978, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife obtained 41 Wild Turkeys from Vermont and released them in the towns of York and Eliot. In Spring 1982, 33 turkeys were trapped from the growing York County population and released in Waldo County. In the winter of 1984, 19 birds were captured in York County and released in Hancock County, but poaching was believed to be the demise of these birds. During the winters of 1987 and 1988, 70 Wild Turkeys were obtained from Connecticut to augment Maine's growing turkey population. Snow depth is believed to be the major factor limiting the distribution of turkeys in Maine," Wiki continues.

Funny our DIFW man didn't mention any of this.

A Wikipedia graph shows what happened next. It shows that in 1986, hunters in Maine killed nine wild turkeys, all in York County.

By 1995, 117 were taken, all still in York and Cumberland Counties. By 2010, hunters had killed 6,077 in Oxford, in a small area west of Benedicta, east of Ellsworth, in Washington County around Route 9, and other places.

Wikipedia also gave lots of information that flew over my head, which I ignored, almost including that the wild turkey is the same species as the domestic turkey. The wild ones aren't as plump, and I don't think any of them are Butterball.

Hey, aren't we impressive with our feathers ruffled. Milt Gross photo.

And they're lots more fun. For instance, they stare suspiciously at the car when I drive into the driveway. There was the one that challenged me one morning, when I went out in the yard to put sunflower seeds down. He ruffled his feathers -- also maybe originating that phrase about people who become upset -- and kind of came at me.

"If you want to argue," I said, "fine. You use your beak, and I'll bring this plastic seed container, which was empty at the moment, down on your little turkey brain."

He gave me a disgruntled look, proving once more that lots of critters know what you're saying to them, turned, and made his turkey way into the woods at the edge of the lawn.

They're so much fun to watch. They race around, dipping their long turkey necks to the ground and snapping up a seed or a whatever every so often. Last week two males puffed themselves all up, and I explained to Dolores that they were in a romantic mood. Then I read that their romantic mood is in the spring. This must have just been their puff-up-our-feathers mood.

The cats enjoy watching the turkeys, a kind of fine feathered entertainment. The cats lie on a porch step and watch, while the turkeys do their running in circles and snapping up a seed at a time -- and keeping an eye on those vicious cats.

I don't recall the last time I read about a cat attacking a wild turkey. Or about a wild turkey attacking a cat.

I don't know how many there are in this part of Maine, not including the 15 or 20 that visit us once or twice each day.

I also don't quite understand what was going on the other day between that fat gray squirrel and that crowd of wild gobblers.

Nor am I sure who won, if it was a standoff or a stalemated war. Both the squirrel and the turkeys still are with us each day.

I may have heard the squirrel quietly say, "Hah, just wait til Thanksgiving. Then see what those big dumb birds do."

Of course, the squirrel should be asleep by that time in whatever tree he hangs out during the winter.

We do know we won't bother either the squirrel or the turkeys, now or at Thanksgiving.

We're going to the Craignair Inn for Thanksgiving dinner.

And we're not inviting any turkeys.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@midmaine.com.

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012

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