Thinking with the wild turkeys
I live in Brookline, on the streets of which one encounters notoriously ill-tempered wild turkeys.
They’re big, too, and intimidatingly ugly. When a dozen of them come strutting down the street, mottled and wattled and bobbing their heads, it’s like a scene in a Western in which a villainous gang comes to town and bystanders dive into nearby doorways and rain barrels to avoid them. Many neighbors report being chased and harrassed, and once in a while the turkeys catch somebody and tune him up.
The turkeys tend to inspire two opposed reactions: “Somebody ought to do something about them before somebody gets hurt” and “Just go around them, and don’t show fear.” Those who hold the latter view sometimes convert to the former after being trapped in their car for twenty minutes by gobbling hardcases who are pretty clearly saying, “If you got a problem with me walking around your driveway whenever I feel like it, then come on and step to me and we’ll settle it like turkeys.”
For an American Studies professor, the turkeys are an additional service provided by the city: not just schools, police, fire, and trash pickup, but also free-roaming culturally resonant creatures. If “animals are good to think with,” as one translation of the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s line famously puts it, what kinds of meaning are turkeys asked to carry?
Most obviously, they’re avatars of urban nature. Along with poodle-eating coyotes, power-line-chewing squirrels, and humans who contribute to climate change, wild turkeys who knock down toddlers and insolently take their time to cross against traffic help us see that the city and nature are not opposed terms but complementary ones. Pristine wilderness and the entirely artificial metropolis are both unsustainable ideas, and wild turkeys are exemplary citizens of the messy hybrid of the two in which we all live.
Brookline’s turkeys are also bearers of opposing ideas about delinquency. Some locals see misbehaving turkeys as caught up in structural conditions beyond their control that turn reasonable turkey behavior into crime. Because it makes perfect turkey sense for a turkey to attack its own image in your hubcap, you don’t fix the problem by responding with draconian mandatory-minimum punishment. Instead, you adjust the structural conditions as best you can (nonreflecting hubcaps, for instance) and try to help the turkey find more socially acceptable ways to act.
Then there’s the opposite view. A couple of years ago, when the Tappan Street turkey crew started getting involved in more violent incidents, word went out around the neighborhood that three bad males were turning the whole flock toward antisocial behavior. This sounded a lot like the “superpredator” theory of delinquency promulgated by John J. DiIulio Jr., especially when we learned that in fact just one stone-cold male perp was causing most of the trouble.
Brookline’s police department, which has been typically patient and careful with the turkeys, responded decisively. When the problem male resisted an attempt to lock up and deport him, the bean-bag projectile used to stun him ended up injuring him so badly that he had to be put down. I don’t know if I believe dark rumors to the effect that it was a set-him-up-and-gun-him-down operation like those conducted by the Detroit police department’s controversial STRESS teams in the early 1970s, but it did appear to achieve the desired result. The Tappan Street turkeys recidivize less often these days.
Life is still rough out there, though. The other day I happened upon a female turkey prostrate in the street after being hit by a car. Other turkeys were standing around, clucking, looking distraught and curious, much like the humans who had also converged on the scene. Three turkeys, also females, stood directly over the victim. One kept trying to raise her fallen comrade’s head with her beak, but every time she got it up in the air and let go, it flopped back to the pavement with a grim smack.
As I went on my way home, I mentally jotted a note to myself: Remind the kids to look both ways at this intersection. Then another: Life is short, and I’m almost 50. And so, thinking with wild turkeys, I made my way through the city.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’