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Column: Seeing the Return of the Native Species Rewards a Long Life

Montpelier

Davy Crockett, according to an old story, once fired several shots at a wildcat rampant high in a big tree and missed every time. Mystified — he was known as a crack shot — he rubbed his forehead and discovered he’d been shooting at a lively louse in his eyebrow.

I thought of him a few minutes ago. I had just sat down at my desk to write when something large and dark dashed across the view from my window, at the edge of my vision. It was too dark and speedy to be one of what my eye doctor calls my “vitreous floaters.” So I got up to look out the window, and every few seconds a wild turkey came running comically up the driveway past the window to join the rest of the flock already scratching at the leftover corn beside the barn. Rats! They’d beaten me to the punch again. I hadn’t put out today’s ration yet.

One of the great pleasures of having lived for so long — off and on, and mostly on, since 1950 — in rural northern New England is the opportunity to enjoy the return of many native species.

Since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and the subsequent ban on the use of the pesticide DDT, long-gone species of birds have returned to our skies. When Mother and I moved to New Hampshire in 1968, there were almost no raptors or scavengers. I sometimes heard a Fish and Game person say, “Peregrine falcons used to nest on that cliff.”

Now they do again. Eagles soar anomalously on the strong upwellings of hot air above the asphalt parking lots of shopping centers and hunt the churning discharges of power dams. Ravens flap and 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 now in the past five years, a sight I’d never seen in the previous 70. And turkey vultures, those incredibly gifted aerial vacuum cleaners, hover above our ridgelines as soon as the summer morning air begins to rise.

Other, less welcome species are also arriving. The woolly adelgid stalks and kills our native hemlocks, the emerald ash borer our ashes, and beech scale our beeches. Deer ticks and dog ticks infest overgrown fields as they never did before warm weather began moving north so rapidly. Our moose — another success story of a returnee — can be so laden with winter ticks that they rub off their fur on trees in attempts to stop the itching; and their winter beds, when they leave them, are often smeared with blood.

If chiggers finally migrate to our New England woods, I’m gone; like Huckleberry Finn, I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest.

Another example of positive change is the return of the North American wild turkey to much of its ancestral range — a most impressive wildlife restoration project. While most of the raptors and scavengers returned naturally as their formerly unviable eggs began to hatch successfully, the remnants of the wild turkey population remained pretty much in the south-central and Appalachian states. 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 (I’m admitting a bias here) would never have the sisu to survive, let alone thrive, in our still-harsh climate.

I was wrong. They’re everywhere up here now, spreading even into northern Maine and Canada, where they once thrived long ago. Walking the winter woods near open land, I see their strange, dinosaurlike tracks in the snow. They coexist with us human beings in relative comfort, gleaning in the fields and visiting friendly feeders openly, but warily. In late spring I often stop the truck to let a hen get her poults across the road or settled in the brushy ditch.

The domestic turkey, with which we’re all familiar, is a direct development from the native North American turkey. Bred for meat, it weighs about twice as much as its wild relative and flies poorly, if at all. The wild ones can fly all too well at times; it’s quite exciting to have one or two cross the hood of your car without warning on the interstate.

One hundred years ago, according to Peter Gilbert, chairman of the Vermont Humanities Council, there were annual fall turkey drives — much like Western cattle drives — from farms in northern New England all the way to Boston. As many as 10,000 birds at a time walked the dirt roads all the way, and roosted without ceremony whenever they happened to sense dusk and upon whatever got them off the ground — trees, barns, once even a schoolhouse, which collapsed.

Nowadays the domestic ones ride to market in refrigerated trucks, and very few of their wild cousins are served at Thanksgiving; it’s a long time to store a frozen bird from the hunting season in May till November. But a lot of us really like having them around and, just as we feed the chickadees and woodpeckers, put out something every day to help them get through the winter, which at the moment is just past half over.

In return, they let us watch them for a while when they show up — which, although I’ve been trying to regulate it, varies a lot. If the day is clear, they often pause after their lunch, turn their backs to the sun, and lie there soaking it up. Their iridescent feathers gleam brown and green. The latecomers scratch at the torn-up patch of earth where the rolled corn was spread, and display an amusing trait: Unlike chickens, which peer down at the dirt as they scratch, turkeys apparently can’t. Probably a balance thing. They raise their heads like birds drinking while they scratch, and then look down to see what, if anything, they’ve uncovered. They don’t trust me enough yet to let me walk out while they’re there and get them more corn. But it’s a long winter. Who knows?

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.