Lange: Return of the Native

Mar 20, 2014

I glanced out my office window at seven this morning. A dozen large wild turkeys were lined up on the far side of the yard, feathers all fluffed up in the cold, looking right at me. They were just starting their daily scavenge of the neighborhood.

One of the pleasures of living so long in northern New England has been watching the return of native species. Since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the subsequent ban on the pesticide DDT, long-gone species of birds have returned to our skies. When we moved to New Hampshire in 1968, there were almost no raptors or scavengers. I sometimes heard someone say, “Peregrine falcons used to nest on that cliff.”

Now they do again. Eagles soar on the rising air above asphalt parking lots of shopping centers. Ravens crawk from so high up that you can only envy them their view. The hawks and owls are back; I’ve seen a great gray owl twice in the past five years, something I’d never seen in the previous seventy-three. Turkey vultures, those incredible aerial vacuum cleaners, hover above our ridge lines as soon as the summer morning air begins to rise.

Most gratifying, the wild turkey has returned to much of its ancestral range. Most of the raptors returned naturally as their formerly unviable eggs began to hatch successfully, but the remnants of the wild turkey population remained in the south-central and Appalachian states. Then a few were trapped, transported north, and released in likely Northeastern habitat – a mixture of open fields and woods. I remember thinking at the time that these Southern birds would never survive, let alone thrive, in our harsh climate.

Boy, was I wrong! They’re everywhere, spreading even into Maine and Canada, where they once were common. Walking the winter woods near open land, I see their strange, dinosaurlike tracks in the snow. They coexist with us in relative comfort, gleaning the fields and the snow beneath bird feeders. In late spring I sometimes stop the truck to let a hen get her poults across the road.

The domestic turkey is descended from the native North American. It weighs twice as much, and flies poorly, if at all. The wild ones can fly, all too well at times; it’s quite exciting to have one cross the hood of your car on the interstate.

Some do get served at Thanksgiving, too. Devotees of wild meat swear they’re far better tasting than domestic. But as one said, “You’ve gotta be careful. You chomp down on a bead of Number 5 shot, you can break a tooth!” Many of us don’t shoot them; we just enjoy having them around.

In return, they let us watch them for a while when they show up. If the day is clear, they often turn their backs to the sun, and lie there soaking it up. Their iridescent feathers gleam brown, green, and bronze. They don’t trust me enough yet to let me walk out while they’re there. But winter isn’t quite over yet. Who knows?

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and actually, I gotta get back to work, right?