Turkey Plays Chicken in Harvard Square

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Although no one knows for sure how long it’s been there, whether a couple months or more, it appears that the Harvard Square turkey is there to stay.

Miraculously still alive in an area notorious for bad driving, the turkey spends its days either walking causally the wrong way down Mass Ave. or posing for confused pedestrians snapping photos with their phones. The turkey travels between Harvard Square and Central, always alone.

Mark McCabe, director of the Cambridge Animal Commission, said there is little his department can do besides keep an eye on the turkey.

“We don’t do anything. We do evaluate it every once in a while and make sure that it appears healthy and is not injured or anything like that. We don’t try to catch it; it is against the law to catch wildlife and move it anywhere other than where it’s at,” said McCabe.

He added that if they were to catch it, they would either have to release it exactly where they caught it, or have it humanely killed. “We’re not going to have it humanely killed just because it’s there,” he said. “Some people want us to chase it and move it, try to get it to go somewhere where it’s not in the middle of Mass Ave. … a lot of the time we don’t like to chase it because then it gets to a point where the animal gets nervous, and will be moving faster than it normally would, and doing things it wouldn’t normally do. It’s a situation where it could get hit by a car when we chase it.”

The turkey has become very popular on Universal Hub, where people regularly submit photos of the bird strutting through Harvard Square. When people unfamiliar with the turkey notice it on the street, they often stop and photograph it. “[The turkey] is probably one of the most photographed things in Harvard Square or Central Square. On a visit to the area there will be the whole Harvard University behind them and they’re taking a picture of the turkey that’s in the grassy area, or right across from the Hong Kong Restaurant or the Dunkin Donuts or whatever,” said McCabe.

Despite regularly stepping in front of cars, seemingly without any regard for its own wellbeing, the turkey has never been hit. Cars will typically stop to let the turkey pass at its own plodding pace. “He’s moving at a slow enough pace that somebody will have enough time to see him and slow down, and a lot of the time have to come to a complete stop. The person behind them doesn’t know why they’re stopped, they start beeping the horn, getting all upset. It causes quite a ruckus,” said McCabe. He also said that because turkeys are so large they are hard for drivers to miss, and considering how slowly traffic typically moves through Harvard Square, drivers have plenty of time to see the turkey and stop.

Typically, turkeys travel in groups of either all females or males, and they do not tend to stay in the same place, as they are not territorial birds. The Harvard Square turkey defies both of these behaviors.

“It may just be an outlier, that is to say it’s an individual that at some point found its way there and for whatever reason is not breeding, and is just, you know, living out its life in Harvard Square. It just likes Harvard Square. Within any given population of animals and organisms, there are always going to be some that are not in the mainstream, if you know what I mean, that are sort of doing their own thing. I think it’s reasonable to think the one in Harvard Square would fall in that category,” said Wayne Peterson of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Like most organisms in Harvard Square, the turkey doesn’t want to be mainstream. Just wait until the turkey starts frequenting Urban Outfitters.

Jack Adams is a local writer and photographer who covers social justice issues around the Boston area.

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