While the bullet-riddled corpse of a feral turkey lies stiff in a Chilmark police freezer, a fuller picture of its violent past on Old Ridge Road and the surrounding neighborhood is emerging.
Last month the turkey, known as Tom, was shot at point blank range by a police officer after allegedly attacking a couple at 27 Old Ridge Road. A resident, claiming to have raised the turkey as his own, is then alleged to have assaulted the officer. At the time many on the Island regarded it as an isolated incident.
But fresh allegations issued by a group of neighbors at a recent Chilmark selectmen’s meeting suggest Tom was head of a gang of violent turkeys roaming the neighborhood and terrorizing residents.
“These turkeys don’t have boundaries,” said Stephanie daRosa, one of four residents of Shadbush Hollow, a dirt path running parallel to Old Ridge Road. “They come and surround you.”
Candy daRosa, another member of the group, referred to a flock of up to 13 turkeys. She said she was often forced to bring sticks and dogs even on short trips, for protection.
“They’ve been terrorizing poor Debbie,” she added, referring to Deborah Morelli, also at the meeting. “It sounds ridiculous, but they chase you and it’s scary.”
The neighbors voiced concern that the aggression may continue and called on selectmen to nominate an official to manage the turkeys.
Residents from both roads paint a picture of a single errant flock, mainly female, led by one or two aggressive males. Last month’s incident was the violent culmination of a year’s worth of aggression.
On June 15 officers Jeffrey Day and Matthew Gebo responded to a report of an aggressive feral turkey at 27 Old Ridge Road. They arrived to find Tom, the turkey, still in the yard.
“The turkey charged at us,” wrote Officer Gebo in his report, who jumped onto the cruiser for protection while Officer Day was chased by the turkey. After several failed attempts to make the turkey leave the area Officer Day reportedly was forced to shoot it. He drew his service weapon and fired twice from arm’s length. Though probably already dying, the turkey then ran for the brush. Officer Day gave chase and fired two more shots, killing the turkey.
Soon after, the officers reported, Jonathan Haar, a seasonal resident of Old Ridge Road emerged from the woods and repeatedly punched Officer Gebo, after demanding to know what they were shooting at his turkeys. Mr. Haar is charged with assault and battery on a public employee, assault and battery and resisting arrest. A pretrial hearing on June 30 has been postponed to August 7.
Mrs. Morelli said that starting last fall, turkeys would regularly appear on her porch and simply stare at her through the window of the kitchen door.
“They would come down in a group, hopping over that fence,” she said, pointing out at the brush beyond her back garden. They arrived at four and five in the morning, she said, and sat in the trees.
“You could always tell if he was there,” she said, referring to Tom. “He had these long feathers. They would scrape along the gravel,” Mrs. Morelli said, imitating the noise produced by the feathers.
She tried to hose the turkeys and beeping the horn to scare them off, to no avail. She was so spooked that she stopped gardening and even took to parking her car within arm’s length of the house for a quick escape route.
Then one Sunday night a turkey toppled into her chimney, as Mrs. Morelli was preparing for bed. Wedged into the flue the turkey struggled and eventually died.
“I could hear it. It was awful. A friend came round on Tuesday and fished it out,” she said.
Though it is unclear what damage a feral turkey can do, Tom’s aggression caused at least one, slight injury.
“It knocked me down,” said Brian Mackey, of 40 Shadbush Hollow, who claims to have been chased around his yard by Tom more than once.
“I was yelling at it to run away and poking it with the rake,” he said. The turkey stalked him up around the back of the house where he climbed a set of rock stairs built into the lawn. It then swooped over him and began leaping at him from another angle, effectively pinning him in between the house and the stairs.
“It just wouldn’t back down,” he said. “I’m standing here jousting with a turkey. Finally it knocked me with its wing and I tripped over a rock.”
During another attack Mr. Mackey was forced to outrun the turkey in his car.
“I kept whacking it with the door but it wouldn’t leave,” he said. He drove the car around his driveway, which is roughly the size of a city block. Looking in the rearview and saw the turkey still in pursuit. He drove faster.
“I managed to get ahead of him and run back in the house,” he said. The turkey came up and stood by the door looking in, with a group of female turkeys.
Roger Greeley lives part time on Ridge Hill Road. His first encounter with the turkey was, bizarrely, on Thanksgiving Day. Preparing a turkey dinner with guests, he spotted a flock of female birds with one male in the garden.
“Of all the days to show up,” he said, sitting on his deck last weekend. After standing around in the garden for period they then flew up onto the porch, “led by the male, they marched single file the length of the porch, and then flew off. It was a strange sight.”
They then began showing up more regularly, he said, acting erratically. Though they showed no signs of aggression at this stage, equally they were not frightened of Mr. Greeley.
“It’s was like trying to shoo away kindergarteners, they’re dumb as rocks,” he said, “But it all seemed so innocent at the beginning.”
At some point he said, the male turned nasty, rearing up at him as he exited the car and attempting to spur him. During one such attack he claims to have felt the turkey’s claws through his jeans. After that he began taking precautions, including carrying a baseball bat.
“I knew there was an attack turkey on the premises,” he said. Following complaints from renters, he even set up an “escort service” for guests walking from the guesthouse to their cars.
“I’m thinking these things are deranged. They appear to be the dumbest birds I’ve ever seen,” he said, “I mean we have crows in the area and we have red tailed hawks. But they have their place in the world pegged out. Those turkeys have lost their place.”
The question remains, why did this flock of turkeys turn bad? At the selectmen’s meeting the residents of Shadbush Hollow speculated that the entire flock was being fed. Augustus Ben David, a noted Vineyard naturalist and wildlife expert, said in this newspaper saying that feeding a turkey can lead to aggressive territorial behavior. If a feral turkey’s fear of humans is reduced through feeding, the turkey will attempt to assert dominance if it perceives a territorial threat from a human.
However residents on both roads claimed that several attacks by Tom had been completely unprovoked and occurred without the presence of female turkeys.
It is unclear what, if anything, can be done about it. Apart from during two short hunting seasons in fall and spring, the turkeys are federally protected. Selectmen suggested state Environmental Police Sergeant Pat Grady should handle the issue. However, speaking earlier this week, Sgt. Grady stated that the issue did not fall under his jurisdiction.
“It’s not a law enforcement issue. Nuisance turkeys are more the purview of the fish and wildlife department,” he said.
At the meeting resident Blue Cullen said that they had made contact with several town officials, including animal control, but were told the turkeys could not be moved or harmed.
Chilmark police are retaining Tom’s corpse while the legality of handing it over for burial is determined. Meanwhile, according to residents, the attacks have tailed off in recent months. Most residents said turkey sightings had diminished and Mrs. Morelli herself wondered whether, with the shooting of Tom, it had become a dead issue. But some wondered if the remaining females are hidden in the woods breeding. Up at the top of Shadbush Hollow, Mr. Mackey provided a chilling clue.
“There’s one left,” he said, picking up the shard from an egg shell in front of his house. “She flies over and lands there at the other side of the yard everyday and runs off. She’s carrying eggs.”