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Don't mess with this turkey

He's fierce, his flock growing

The 85-year-old Concord woman was tiny, maybe 5 feet tall, sweet as can be, and just a little bit frail.

The turkey was a full-grown tom. Three feet from spur to crown, pumped up on mating-season testosterone, fearless and rearing to defend his turf.

Unfortunately for the octogenarian, that included her. The turkey had built a nest above her porch, staking his claim, and at some point decided she was part of it. No one could go into her house. No one could leave. As far as the turkey was concerned, the little old lady belonged to him. Period. End of conversation.

''And let me tell you something, I wouldn't want to see a matchup between the two of them," said Ellie Horwitz, director of education at the Massachusetts Department of Wildlife, who interceded in the standoff. ''This was a seriously aggressive bird."

The letter carrier was the first to find out just how serious. He was chased away. Then a delivery boy bringing heart medication was given the bum's rush. When the elderly woman herself tried to leave the house, she was quickly shooed back inside.

In the end, the turkey attacked the wrong guys. He went after a bunch of furniture movers who threw coffee at him, prompting the turkey to run into the street, where it was struck and killed by a car.

''Wild turkeys," Horwitz said, ''can be very formidable."

Turns out, more and more people are learning that the hard way. Extinct in Massachusetts for more than a century, the notoriously aggressive fowl was reintroduced to the Bay State 33 years ago and its population has since ballooned. But now residents in some of the more congested suburbs in Eastern Massachusetts are wondering if that reintroduction -- hailed by some as a mighty environmental success story -- is such a good thing after all.

Wild turkeys are so pugnacious and proud that Ben Franklin once lobbied to name them America's national symbol. But their high-octane protective streak has made them the bane of dozens of neighborhoods. In the fall, flocks around Lexington, Concord, Bedford, and Carlisle can run to 40 and 50. In Central Massachusetts the numbers are closer to 200. And in the spring the males become so hot-tempered and quarrelsome they have been known to attack cars, joggers, and, yes, even little old ladies.

Last Tuesday afternoon in Canton, after two toms spent several months intimidating pedestrians, the state gave permission to a hunter to shoot the birds with a bow and arrows.

''Ten years ago if you told me you saw a turkey I'd tell you you were hallucinating," said Mark Thomas of Bay State Wildlife Management, who killed the birds. ''Now we're filthy with them."

The population has come full circle. When the Pilgrims arrived here in the 17th century, the area was rife with wild turkeys. But as vast tracks of the state's forests were cleared for farmland, their natural habitat was destroyed and the birds, who play such a central role in Thanksgiving tradition, were forced to retreat.

In 1851, the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was shot on Mt. Tom in Holyoke, according to the state. Five years later Concord resident Henry David Thoreau lamented in his journal that the extermination of the birds and other ''noble animals" had emasculated the landscape. Without them, he wrote, the state's forests were like''a tribe of Indians that had lost all its warriors."

But after the Civil War, as farms were abandoned in favor of factory jobs, forests began to regenerate and the call went out to bring back the turkey. Between 1914 and 1947 there were at least four attempts to reintroduce the birds to the state, but the domestic fowl set loose did not survive.

Then, in 1972, 37 wild birds were trapped in New York and let loose in southern Berkshire County. Six years later there were 1,000. Today wild turkeys number around 20,000, according to state wildlife officials. In environmental circles the program to reintroduce wild turkeys to Massachusetts is spoken of with the same reverence as the efforts to repopulate some Western states with wild elk.

But some suburbanites are now complaining the effort might be a little too successful. As the turkeys have proliferated, they have migrated ever eastward along power-line corridors. In the past decade they have begun encroaching into the more congested Boston suburbs inside Interstate 495 and Route 128, and that's where tensions have festered.

''They're still a novelty, so people feed them," said Tom Delaney, the animal-control officer in Groton. ''They started showing up here three or four years ago and they're getting a little bolder every year."

When the birds were originally reintroduced, it was thought they could only survive in mature hardwood forest, but it turns out they're a lot heartier than that, said James Cardoza, a state wildlife biologist who helped reintroduce the birds here 30 years ago. ''Wild turkeys can survive in a mixed area as long as there's an adequate supply of berries and seed."

Both are plentiful among landscaped neighborhoods with bird feeders and carefully planted berry-producing bushes.

''They're just starting to really take hold in Acton," said Erik Amati, a state wildlife biologist who works in that town. ''I've had to get one out of a guy's garage who wouldn't leave. Another one flew through an upper-story window."

The ill will between turkeys and people stems from the fact that turkeys are highly social animals that honor strict hierarchies, but they recognize only two categories: predators and other turkeys. If a tom doesn't fear you, it will probably try to dominate you, Cardoza said.

The problem can be especially acute for turkey-sized children. In Concord, police have been called to defend grade-schoolers waiting at a bus stop.

''They run at you and peck; they can make a pretty big display," Cardoza said.

And they're not easily dissuaded, but since they're protected for all but five weeks a year during hunting season, they can only be killed under extreme conditions -- as in Canton last week.

Meanwhile, their numbers keep increasing. Cardoza said the turkey population in the eastern part of the state is likely to continue to grow, especially since most of its natural predators are extinct and wild turkeys -- not exposed to humans -- are among the most difficult of all game to hunt.

''They have incredible eyesight, said Horwitz, who has hunted turkeys. ''They can see you blink from 50 yards."

To hunt them you sit near where you think they will come and wait very quietly. Then when they arrive you take your best shot. Only about 10 percent of hunters who go out turkey hunting come back with a bird. Horwitz was among those proud to say she's bagged a bird.

''I roasted him with bacon," she said. ''Very tasty."

Douglas Belkin can be reached at

Roast turkey with cornmeal stuffing

14 slices of bacon
1 cup of onion, chopped
1/4 cup of celery, chopped
1/2 cup of water
1 (8-ounce) package of cornmeal stuffing mix
1 chicken bouillon cube
1/2 cup of hot water
1 cup of dry red wine, divided
1 (10- to 12-pound) wild or domestic turkey

1. Fry eight slices of bacon until crisp. Drain bacon, crumble, and set aside.

2. Saute onion and celery in bacon drippings. When vegetables are tender, add 1/2 cup water and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in stuffing mix and crumbled bacon.

3. Dissolve bouillon cube in 1/2 cup hot water. Add 1/2 cup red wine to bouillon. Add bouillon-wine liquid to stuffing mixture and stuff turkey.

4. Transfer turkey to roasting pan. Lay four slices of bacon across the breast, and wrap a slice of bacon around each leg. Cover pan with foil; then place lid on pan.

5. Bake in 300-degree oven for 4 1/2 hours. Remove cover and foil. Pour remaining wine over turkey. Baste every 10 minutes while cooking an additional 40 minutes.

Yield: 12 to 15 servings

SOURCE: National Wild Turkey Federation

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