GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 8, 2009

Attack, counterattack

Marauding turkeys back on the postal prowl in Rockport

By Jonathan L'Ecuyer

They're back.

After a seven-month break, wild turkeys are once again attacking mail carriers as they deliver parcels in Rockport's South Street neighborhood — and at least one mail carrier Thursday was fighting back.

In what seemed like a scene out of what might have been a badly updated Hitchcock film, a turkey was spotted chasing a U.S. Postal Service truck down South Street on Thursday afternoon. When the mail carrier exited the vehicle, the turkey went after him. And despite the postal worker's attempts to scare the bird off, the turkey continued its charge — until the carrier responded with pepper spray.

Though he wouldn't reveal his name, the mail carrier did say it was the first time he has ever used his pepper spray, which is issued to mail carriers as protection against aggressive dogs, officials said.

The state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) instructs people not to let turkeys intimidate them, but turkey expert Jim Cardoza said pepper spray is not the answer.

"Turkeys don't have tear ducts so pepper spray is not a good idea," Cardoza said yesterday. "People should bully it back, whack it with a broom, or use a hose.

"As a last resort, police can destroy the animal if the turkey is harming an elderly person or child," he added, "but it's not the preferred option."

The mail carrier described himself as a "nice guy" who didn't want to harm the animal.

According to Rockport Post Office Delivery Manager Tim Russell, before Thursday's incident, the area had been quiet this year following a five-month streak of nearly daily turkey attacks last September to January.

Nearly every day over that span, an average of 10 turkeys — led by a pair of male "ring leaders" — chased and attempted to peck a postal worker as he completed his route along Marmion Way and South Street.

Though Russell refused further comment, earlier this year, the 22-year-veteran of the U.S. Postal Service said he had never seen anything like it.

On Jan. 15, a number of passers-by stopped to help a postal worker as he was being chased down the street by the quick-trotting turkeys. Concerned that the mail carrier or turkey would be harmed as a result of an altercation, the local post office stopped delivering mail to five South Street homes for several days in January.

At the time, the Post Office sought the expertise of Capt. John Tulik of the state Environmental Police. Tulik suggested arming the postal worker with an umbrella. When a turkey begins to charge, the carrier should open the umbrella toward the turkey, which in turn should trick the bird into thinking it's facing another dominant male flaring its tail feathers.

Russell said none of his carriers have used an umbrella against a turkey this year.

Part of the problem, Police Chief Tom McCarthy has said, is that some neighborhood residents have been feeding the birds over the last several years.

Cardoza said there is "no good answer" because it's a relatively new problem for the eastern United States where the turkey population has seen a resurgence. Turkeys were all but extinct in Massachusetts by 1851, but were reintroduced to the state in the early 1970s and have flourished.

Cardoza said even if intimidation tactics work for a time against the turkey, it eventually may stop working as turkeys begin to recognize individuals.

"When they become used to people and people feed them, the turkeys lose their fear of people and they react to people as if they are part of their group," Cardoza said.

"You have to show the turkey you're the boss," he added. "The one thing to not do is run away because then you're showing the turkey it's the boss."

Jonathan L'Ecuyer can be reached at jlecuyer@gloucestertimes.com.

WHEN TURKEYS ATTACK

Don't feed turkeys. Keep wild things wild! Feeding, whether direct or indirect, can cause turkeys to act tame and may lead to bold or aggressive behavior, especially in the breeding season.

Keep bird feeder areas clean. Use feeders designed to keep seed off the ground, as the seed attracts turkeys and other wild animals.

Don't let turkeys intimidate you. Don't hesitate to scare or threaten a bold, aggressive turkey with loud noises, swatting with a broom or water sprayed from a hose. A dog on a leash is also an effective deterrent.

Protect your garden and crops. You can harass turkeys searching for food in your gardens. Dogs tethered on a run can also be effective in scaring turkeys away from gardens. Netting is another option to employ. In agricultural situations, some scare devices are effective.

Source: MassWildlife