HBS Goes Cold Turkey!

The wild turkey. Meleagris gallopavo. A prehistoric beast, swift of foot and stout of heart. A fierce fighter and a tender lover. Ben Franklin called it a “true Native of America. a Bird of Courage” and implied that it would be a better emblem for our country than the lazy and cowardly bald eagle.

Mr. Franklin might be pleased to know that, more than two hundred years after he celebrated the virtues of the turkey, one of these proud birds became the de facto emblem of the Harvard Business School. We called it Turk Turkee, Julius, neighbor, nemesis, and friend. And lately, we call it missing.

Now that spring has arrived and flowers are in bloom, many members of our community have fixated on an increasingly frantic question: where is the flocking turkey? Is she hibernating? Has she soared off to greener pastures? Will she ever return?

In this exhaustive investigative report, we will tell Turk’s story, from her arrival on campus in September of 2007 until her mysterious disappearance in December of 2008. Like a turkey searching for grubs in a shadowy forest, we will leave no stone unturned. And we will not shy away from the hard truth.

Turk’s arrival at Harvard Business School can be seen in a broader context of turkey repopulation here in Massachusetts. Wild turkeys, common during the colonial period, faced intense pressure from hunting and deforestation as human settlement progressed. By 1851, turkeys were extinct in Massachusetts. In 1972, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife relocated thirty-seven New York state birds to southern Berkshire County. This initial population expanded rapidly. Experts estimate that there are now fifteen thousand turkeys living in this state.

These birds, once considered rare and elusive and capable of surviving only in isolated forest areas, have since proven to be highly adaptable and well-suited for a variety of habitats. By most accounts, Turk arrived on the Harvard Business School campus in September of 2007. She was attracted, undoubtedly, by forty acres of tree-lined paths and manicured grassy courtyards, insulation from traffic, ample food sources, and perhaps also that special aura of young minds hard at work.

Initially, students, faculty, and staff enjoyed Turk’s presence. She spent most of her time strutting about the campus, admiring herself in windows, impressing visitors and providing a welcome respite from days of cases and classes. But by the start of the 2008 school year, Turk’s mood had changed. Once shy around humans, Turk became increasingly confrontational. She began to chase students, reporters, police officers and children and to lash out with her talons and her beak. Our feathered friend was a disaster waiting to happen.

Jim Cardoza, a wildlife biologist at the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, the head of the Massachusetts Turkey Project and the architect of the 1972 turkey relocation, said that this behavior is nothing new. “As wildlife and humans intermingle,” he explained in a phone conversation, “some conflict is almost inevitable.”

Indeed, incidents like the ones at Harvard have been common throughout history. The first recorded interaction between turkeys and humans occurred within the nascent Aztec empire. The Aztecs had a complicated relationship with “huexolotlin.” While two festivals a year were held in the bird’s honor, the Aztecs also viewed the turkey as a manifestation of Tezcatlipoca, the trickster god. As wild turkeys migrated to North America, they began hectoring Native American tribes, starting with the Navajo. The Navajo struggled to keep turkeys from destroying their crops, but the birds were relentless and the Navajo were frightened. The Navajo managed to turn the tide of the battle by feeding, fencing, and domesticating the turkeys over time. This truce was not to last. As human populations grew in the Americas, turkeys were driven nearly to extinction, particularly in more populated areas.

In more recent history, a resurgence of turkey populations has again threatened the delicate balance between man and bird.

In April of 2008, the Associated Press reported that mailmen in Madison, Wisconsin had more to fear than just dogs and disgruntled postal workers. A roving flock of ten birds had targeted the letter carriers, even to the point of pecking them in their mail trucks. Postal workers were eventually armed with water pistols. The water worked temporarily, but the cunning birds soon shrugged off the spray as though it were water off a duck’s back. The carriers have since resorted to more powerful weapons such as sticks and umbrellas.

In March of this year, wild turkeys rampaged in Michigan. The Jackson Citizen Patriot reported that turkeys have attacked truck drivers and mechanics at Tri-County International Trucks in Jackson. Employee Dave Dodes commented, “They’re not afraid of traffic, and now they chase people around.” He remarked that wild turkeys have been spotted around the business for a long time, but have only recently turned aggressive.

And just a few weeks ago, in Buckfield, Maine, police reported that a wild turkey knocked a twenty-three year-old man off his motorcycle, breaking his collarbone.

The root of the problem, Mr. Cardoza said, is that wild turkeys “like chickens, live in flocks and establish a pecking order.” Turkeys enforce this pecking order, or natural hierarchy within the flock, by intimidating subservient birds. As turkeys grow accustomed to human beings, more dominant birds will try to assimilate people into their social structure, often with violence. If a person responds to a turkey’s bluster with confidence and aggression, the turkey will generally submit. Conversely, if a person shows fear or weakness, the turkey will consider him or her to be a fair target for bullying now and in the future. On a campus like Harvard Business School, it is almost impossible to establish the appropriate relationship between birds and humans. Some community members will be poised and confident enough to put a turkey in its place. Many others, when faced with a charging twenty-five pound turkey, will react with enough fear and uncertainty to invite future attacks on them and others.

“Sadly,” Mr. Cardoza noted, “once a bird becomes aggressive, it is difficult to deter and must often be removed.”

Back at Harvard, Bob Breslow, Director of Administration in the Operations group of the Business School, knew that something had to be done about Turk Turkee. Complaints about the bird had multiplied, and the nature of the attacks on community members and property seemed to be escalating past the realm of amusement into a real danger zone. On several occasions, parents were forced to sprint, carrying their children, from day care to the safety of their cars to avoid the onslaught of an angry Turk. One woman said that she was afraid to leave her apartment for fear of a turkey confrontation. Reporters who came to campus to visit Turk were attacked and beaked bloody.

Mr. Breslow recalled, “We have faced some other animal issues before. A fox running around campus. Some rogue squirrels in dorm rooms. But this turkey was really the perfect storm.”

Harvard reached out to the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife for advice and support. The state has clear rules when it comes to dealing with animals that threaten people or property. Such “problem animals” may be harassed until they leave an area of conflict. If non-lethal disruption fails to dislodge a problem animal, the state mandates that the animal be trapped and destroyed, in a humane manner, by a licensed problem animal control agent.

Mr. Breslow reflected, “We really wanted to explore other options for removal of the turkey. But once the turkey began to pose a real threat to the community, we had no alternative but to hire a state licensed problem animal control agent. Ultimately, the turkey just didn’t have tenure.”

The saga of Turk Turkee, like most great mysteries, does not end with a smoking gun or incontrovertible proof. There are no wishbones on the windowsill or feathers in the furnace. There is simply an unyielding state mandate, a quiet removal, an unmarked grave, and an end to an era here at the Harvard Business School.

We can only hope to extract some valuable lessons from this experience. Turk Turkee, with us for a transformational year and half, brought to light important issues like tolerance, diversity, and where future leaders of the business world actually fit into the natural pecking order. This turkey, which so eagerly admired its reflection in windows and shiny car doors, has perhaps given all of us a chance to more fully examine ourselves.

Edward Scott is finishing his first year at HBS. He has worked as a landscaper, consultant, freelance writer, and deal analyst for a biotechnology company. His interests include healthcare, cooking, and running.

Carter Williams previously worked in business development in the education and mobile technology spheres. His interests include water skiing, squash, and movies.

-Turkeys exhibit sexual dimorphism
-Males typically have “beards” which consist of modified feathers that stick out from the breast. It is not common, but sometimes female turkeys have beards.
-Wild turkeys can fly for short distances up to 55 mph and can run as fast as 20 mph
-Male turkeys (also called gobblers or toms) gobble
-Female turkeys (also called hens) “yelp” to let gobblers know their location
-European explorers took wild turkeys to Europe from Mexico in the early 1500s
-The male wild turkey provides no parental care
-Several hens and their broods may join up into bands of more than 30 birds – these roving gangs of birds are called flocks
-Turkeys roost in trees at night but spend daylight hours on the ground
-Turkeys’ heads change colors when they become excited
-The fleshy growth under a turkey’s throat is called a wattle. Turkeys also have a long, red, fleshy area that grows from the forehead over the bill called a snood.
-Turkeys can have heart attacks. During U.S. Air Force test runs in breaking the sound barrier, nearby turkeys dropped dead from sudden cardiac arrest.
‘Turkey’ and its sister insult ‘jive turkey’ are slang terms meaning stupid or full of bluster. These slangs once thrived in the 1970s and 1980s but are now thought extinct.
-Turkeys see in color but have poor night vision
-Domesticated turkeys do not possess the instincts to survive in the wild
-On average, Israelis eat 28 pounds of turkey per year, more than in any other country
-Turkeys are probably not ‘self-aware’ and do not recognize their own image and, as such, will respond to a reflection as they would an intruding turkey
-Some wild turkeys, especially in spring and summer, choose to stand or pace back-and-forth in the center of busy highways, dodging vehicles and blocking traffic. These particular birds are referred to as “highway turkeys.” They are not easily dispersed.