(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange is very happy about the return of a species that almost became our national symbol.
(LANGE) When it comes to bad news about our habitat, there’s plenty to go around: global warming, deserts advancing and glaciers retreating, acid rain, world population growing, resistant viruses lurking, and mercury poisoning our aquatic food chain – that’ll do for openers.
So it’s always pleasant to hear some good news. The return of the falcon, eagle, and osprey to New England is among the best of it. Ravens, unknown here 40 years ago, crawk across our skies again. Moose are following the resurgent forests south. Turkey vultures are back. And the pine martens are slowly moving into the conifers again.
One of the most spectacular returnees seems to be everywhere – the eastern wild turkey. I drove through four flocks on the way to work yesterday. Like many of us, I’ve heard stories of turkeys’ sagacity, so it’s startling to watch them when a flock crossing the road is interrupted by traffic. They zoom every which way, like waterbugs, every one trying to join all the others; and when they’re close to your vehicle, they’re impossible to see.
Turkeys are native North Americans. They migrated to Europe with the conquistadors. They were a mainstay of native American diets, but bows and arrows and snares didn’t threaten their numbers. Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as our national symbol. The bald eagle got the nod instead, and I’ve always thought Franklin’s idea kind of goofy. Now, with turkeys all around, their mere presence reminiscent of the untamed spirit of early America, I agree with him.
Turkeys in New England succumbed during the 1850s to modern weapons, habitat destruction, and an absence of hunting regulations. Our hardwood forests had been cut to make way for farming and grazing. Turkeys, dependent on beechnuts, acorns, and chestnuts, disappeared. Then, about 35 years ago the fish and game departments of Vermont and New Hampshire imported a few from New York State. They found New England’s resurrected mix of open fields and hardwoods very much to their liking.
This time of year we see them gleaning the stubble fields. Later they’ll switch to mast and shriveled rose hips and sensitive fern. Still later, they’ll join the deer in the patch of cracked corn outside the kitchen window.
During the spring mating season hunters dressed in camouflage sit still as stones and cackle, yell, and cluck like turkeys. Some of them are pretty good. There’s a story of one hunter who looked and acted so turkeylike that he was jumped and clawed by a bobcat.
A dominant tom turkey forms a harem. He has little to do with raising the kids, and during the winter hangs out with the guys. I pointed this out to Mother one day. “What a life, eh? The toms have all the fun and don’t do any work. And they’re polygamous!”
“Yep,” she said. “Probably why they’re called turkeys.”
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I better get back to work.
Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studios in Norwich.