A turkey and two poults visit a Needham backyard/ Credit: Needham Observer

“A bird of courage” is what Benjamin Franklin called the turkey, though somewhat facetiously. He was suggesting it was a better choice for our national bird than the bald eagle, which he called “a bird of bad moral character.” By comparison, he said, “the turkey is … a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”

This native bird was almost extinct by 1900 because of overhunting and loss of habitat, but efforts in the 1970s brought them back, and wild turkeys — not their domesticated relatives who may be the centerpiece on your dinner table today — are once again thriving across New England, including here in Needham.  

They’ve become a more common sight in our backyards or strutting across the street with their young ones, called poults. It’s not because there are more of them, said Needham Animal Control Officer David Parsons, but because once again they are losing their habitat. “It’s not that they’re increasing, it’s just that their space is decreasing, so we see more of them,” he said.

Turkeys are not in town because they want to be here, but because they have no other place to go, said Parsons. “As you know, in Needham we’re always building, we’re always cutting down trees and everything else in between, so their lives have been disrupted.” 

Turkeys sleep in trees and prefer wooded areas, and they look for food wherever they can find vegetation. That means our yards, where they eat many of the bugs and insects we don’t want around, such as ticks. According to the retailer Birds Unlimited, an adult turkey might eat 200 ticks a day.

Although Ben Franklin said a turkey “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on,” they are more social than aggressive and can be scared off with loud noises or a spray of the hose. “They’re not being a bother, they’re not a threat,” said Parsons. “It’s wildlife, you just leave them alone.”

That means don’t feed them. “No, any wildlife, we discourage people to feed any wildlife,” he said, which is part of learning to coexist with wildlife in Needham. He noted turkeys are transient and will move on.

Turkeys have gotten a reputation — perhaps unfairly — for not being intelligent, and Franklin noted as an aside that they are “a little vain and silly ‘tis true.” Parsons didn’t take a position. “If they are in the middle of the roadway, they are just trying to cross, you just stop and let them cross,” he said. “At least they are intelligent enough to know how to cross the road.”

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