Ask an Island Expert: Are those actual wild turkeys walking around?

Turkeys nibbling at sprouting corn in West Tisbury. — Susan Safford

Well, yes and no. They are turkeys, certainly: Meleagris gallopavo to ornithologists. But they’re better thought of as feral than as truly wild. Truly wild turkeys were wiped out on the Vineyard, and indeed in Southern New England entirely, in the 19th century; they were too tasty and too easy to hunt for their own good. But in the latter half of the 20th century, turkeys were reintroduced widely into the Northeast from populations that had persisted elsewhere in the U.S. Some of these reintroductions were formal, carried out by government biologists; others, like the reintroduction of this species to the Vineyard, were less tidy — a series of informal releases, augmented by the occasional escape of barnyard birds. This checkered history reveals itself in the form of variable plumage: a good percentage of our turkeys are mottled with patches of white, reflecting mixed ancestry.

At present, the Island’s feral turkeys must number well up into the hundreds, and meandering flocks of Meleagris can turn up nearly anywhere, including neighborhoods adjacent to Vineyard Haven center. Surprisingly, turkeys often roost in trees. In a sense, it’s pretty cool to have turkeys around: They’re impressive birds with remarkable plumage and dramatic mating displays (males really do puff out their feathers, fan their tails, and gobblegobblegobble). But turkeys are egotistical birds: A flock thinks nothing of stopping traffic as it saunters across a road, and especially if they’ve become accustomed to humans, turkeys can be aggressive and territorial toward people. These are powerful birds, and the wrist joints of their wings can whack you like a baseball bat. You do not want to be attacked by one. So enjoy our turkeys from a distance, don’t feed them, and don’t let them boss you around.