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“Turkey Town” explores vital role of Berkshire County in modern Massachusetts gobbler population

A wild turkey during mating season.
Wikimedia Commons
A wild turkey during mating season.

“Turkey Town” is a new documentary that begins streaming nationally through PBS starting tomorrow. The film explores how conservationists rebuilt the Massachusetts turkey population, which had dwindled out of existence by the mid-20th Century, and why Berkshire County played a major role in the fowl’s return to prominence in the Bay State. It also probes the relationship between humanity and the American symbol. Director Aynsley Floyd spoke with WAMC.

FLOYD: “Turkey Town” is a 30-minute documentary short that talks about the history of the repopulation effort of the wild turkey in Massachusetts, which is an interesting story. It also goes into how the turkeys have adapted to live in suburban and even urban areas, and also how people have adapted to the presence of the wild turkeys in their urban areas.

WAMC: What led to that massive decline of the state's turkey population that precipitated these conservation efforts?

They were completely extirpated from the state in the mid-19th century. And that was due to deforestation. So, habitat loss, and also hunting. They were sort of hunted to extinction.

What was the response to that?

Well, for about 100 years, we didn't have any turkeys in Massachusetts at all. And it wasn't until the early 1970s and late 1960s that wildlife biologists in the state decided that they had the ability to and the desire to fix this mistake.

And this is where Western Massachusetts comes into play. Talk to us about what conservationists did to rebuild that population in the commonwealth.

The predecessor to MassWildlife decided to relocate wild turkeys that were living happily and healthily in New York state. So, they captured a small number of birds – 37 birds to be exact, in upstate New York – and drove them in a truck over the border and release them in Beartown State Forest. And these 37 birds proliferated like crazy, the population just took off. After a certain number of years, when the population was established, they started gathering birds from the Beartown population and moving them to other areas of the state. And here we are today with our turkey situation- Or problem, however you want to look at it.

Now, your film talks about the intersection of human culture and turkey culture. Talk to us about that- What have you learned from speaking to folks about the role turkeys play in both the wild and in more closer-to-home settings like urban and suburban parts of the state?

Yeah, that's been one of the most interesting things about making this film, is really looking deeply at what this iconic bird sort of means to people. There's been a wide range of responses. In the film, I look at one woman who's created, an artist who's created an enormous body of work expressly about wild turkeys. And the art is beautiful, and it's humorous. And it's an interesting reaction to this particular artist having these birds in her environment. Another person I look at in the film adopted a disabled turkey as a pet, and sort of allows it to kind of come and go in her home. Another character I looked at is a turkey hunter, but a philosophical turkey hunter, someone who sort of thinks very carefully about what it means to hunt a wild animal and what it means to eat meat and to do so responsibly.

Talk to us a little bit about the process of bringing the turkeys out to Western Massachusetts, I know that some interesting technology was employed in that process. What sort of specifics can you draw on from that fascinating experiment in in repopulation that led to Great Barrington being the site of the great re-turkeying of Massachusetts?

Sure. So, the turkeys were captured by this sort of interesting contraption called a cannon net, which is basically a net that's sort of compressed into a metal box, like an accordion, and explosives are attached to this box so that when the net is triggered, there's an explosion that causes the net to sort of span out several feet in front of itself. And so, they would place the cannon net on the ground in a field and put food in front of the net in order to attract the turkeys. And when the turkeys gathered, they would sort of deploy this net. There's some footage of this in the film, and you'll see that the turkeys don't seem to be particularly bothered by the fact that they're being covered by a net. And they were collected that way, and placed carefully in the back of a truck and brought to the Berkshires.

Now it strikes me there's a degree of playing God here by choosing what kind of turkey would go on to become the new default turkey for the state. Were there any considerations to that concept, that there's sort of this specific genetic line or kind of turkey that would essentially become the new go-to turkey for the region?

That's an interesting question. There's only slight variation in turkey species that exists in Northern America. So, the turkeys that they collected from New York State were genetically very similar to the turkeys that used to exist in Massachusetts prior to the mid-19th century. So, it's not that they had a whole bunch of choice in which kind of turkey to bring over. They were very genetically similar to what was here before.

Now, was there any like legislation or regulation of the turkey world that came along with this effort, given that they'd been hunted so aggressively up to that point? Was there any sort of legal recourse to attempt to protect that community with the state have gone out of its way to specifically repopulate it?

Yeah, that's a good question. So yes, turkeys, wild turkeys are protected by law in the state of Massachusetts. It is illegal to collect their eggs or touch them or tamper with them in any way. Having said that, there is a sanctioned hunting season for wild turkeys. But it's highly regulated. It's only twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. And there are very strict rules about how many turkeys a hunter can take during any particular hunt. Also, it's illegal to discharge a firearm within 500 yards of a dwelling in Massachusetts, which pretty much excludes any sort of urban area. So, you know, the hunting and taking of turkeys in any kind of urban or suburban area is strictly forbidden. But yes, they are protected, they are protected by law.

Now, did you get to interact with any actual turkeys while working on this? And if so, did you feel you learned anything about the unique character, literally, of the turkey itself?

Yeah, good question. I did have some close proximity to some wild turkeys in the course of this project, and I would say one thing that that surprised me about meeting an actual wild turkey is they're quite a bit smarter than you might expect. You know, I think it's easy to be deceived by their appearance, in terms of judging their intelligence. Obviously, they're kind of clumsy and unwieldly and they have sort of a tiny head and they kind of behave in ways that you might assume would mean that they're not very intelligent. On the flip side, if you really examine that, the fact that turkeys have been able to not only adapt to our environment and urban environments but also thrive in our environment goes a long way in saying how intelligent they actually are.

Now, did that in any way humanize the turkey and complicate your experience in the concept of consuming a turkey?

Definitely. I mean, I am a vegetarian before I started the film. But yes, I do have great sympathy for animals and even more for the wild turkey ever after having done this project.

Are there any questions about the turkey and your film and the experience of working on it that you want to make sure gets out there that I've not thought to ask you?

I think that the story of the repopulation of the wild turkey is a really interesting one in that wildlife biologists decided to bring the turkey back to Massachusetts for no other reason than it was to correct an environmental mistake that people had made in the past. There's no reason why we really need to have turkeys in Massachusetts. We lived for almost 100 years with no turkeys here and did just fine. Really, the only reason to bring them back was because it was the right thing to do. And for me, in the face of climate change, a story where people decided to correct an environmental mistake simply because they decided to and had the will to is very hopeful

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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