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The Next Bite: The Prey

Let’s eat the Brookline turkeys

Wild turkeys walk along a street in a residential neighborhood in Brookline, Mass. Collin Binkley/AP

The wild turkeys roaming the streets and lawns of Brookline are nasty, even menacing. But Thanksgiving is at hand. These turkeys are the ultimate locally sourced protein. So why aren’t people eating them?

After becoming extinct in Massachusetts in the 19th century, wild turkeys were reintroduced in the Berkshires in the 1970s. It worked. They spread — to the point that Brookline, a town far denser than most American cities, has become a vibrant habitat for feral poultry. Foodie circles are abuzz over urban farming and urban beekeeping. But we haven’t yet reimagined thickly settled places as full-fledged ecosystems with wild fauna suitable for eating.

The turkeys strutting through the front yards of Brookline have become an ongoing joke, a YouTube sensation, even unofficial mascots for the town — but seeing them as a source of nourishment takes a bigger conceptual leap. In our minds, free-range meat comes from Whole Foods, not the neighborhoods all around it.

In theory, suburban turkeys are edible, possibly even tasty, despite their exposure to the detritus of human settlement. They’re free of growth hormones, and, according to the state Division of Wildlife and Fisheries, their diet is surprisingly good.

“There’s lots of good food [for turkeys] in the suburbs,” said Marion Larson, a former game warden who’s now MassWildlife’s chief of education and information. “It’s not just nuts and berries. They love that bird seed — there’s a lot of bird seed.”

But to eat a bird, one would first have to kill it. Hunting is carefully regulated in Massachusetts. For obvious reasons, it’s illegal to discharge a hunting weapon within 500 feet of a building or 150 feet of a public road — a prohibition that covers virtually all of Brookline. Nabbing a turkey by other means isn’t easy. Birds have wings, Larson notes, and they use them. And catching turkeys with the help of nets, baits, or decoys would amount to illegal hunting.

For their part, authorities in Brookline aren’t keen on letting residents trap and eat the turkeys in their yards. Officer David Cheung, who’s in charge of animal control in Brookline, mentions an old law that does allow people to kill wildlife that damages their property. But a turkey scratching up someone’s front yard likely doesn’t fall under the law, which, he says, was primarily intended to help farmers confronted with intruding animals. “We have a lot of old laws in Massachusetts,” Cheung observed, “that are just not revised to meet with the times.”

For now, our public policies are geared more toward thwarting varmints than humoring locavores. And it’ll take more than legal adjustments to turn Brookline turkeys into a viable Thanksgiving dinner. Some plucky startup will have to develop a humane way of capturing them — and then carting them off for processing. Even if one could legally lasso a turkey, rustling it into a Lyft for the trip to the butcher would be a challenge.

Until then, turkeys will keep proliferating in distinctly civilized places. It’s only a matter of time before we see them not as interlopers, but as a culinary opportunity.

Editors Dante Ramos, David Scharfenberg, and Alex Kingsbury

Design and development Elaina Natario

Design Director Heather Hopp-Bruce

Audience engagement Heather Ciras

Illustration Cristina Martín Recasens

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