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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Turkeys make Valley Cemetery their 'resting' place

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 27. 2013 7:44PM

I'M A big fan of "Looking Back," the column by Aurore Eaton about Manchester history, which appears in the New Hampshire Union Leader every Tuesday.

Of late, Aurore has written about Valley Cemetery. A master storyteller, she finds and weaves a tale behind nearly every headstone.

We all know about Valley Cemetery. The Victorian-era cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places. At least two governors and five mayors rest there, along with wealthy businessmen, city founders and veterans from the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

Now, a different breed of newcomers has been stalking the cemetery.

For the past two years or so, a small flock of wild turkeys — counts vary from about seven to 10 — has made its home at the 20 acres of Valley Cemetery.

"They all just kind of wander their way around," said Pine Street resident Jacqui Berrios as she walked a small puggle (on a leash) through the cemetery a couple of weeks ago. "They don't do anything. They just keep to themselves and are kind of fun to watch."

She said she first spotted the flock in the spring. The city's Cemetery Division, however, said the turkeys have been around for about two years.

Photographer David Lane and I spotted them late last month as they prodded and pecked their way among gravestones on the southern edge of the cemetery.

The cemetery that may seem a little creepy — especially on a full-moon night or on Halloween — is very accommodating to the birds. Maybe it's the natural setting, with lots of mature trees and a valley to hide in. Or maybe its the relative quiet and lack of disturbance.

But it's odd that while most of us feast today on farm-fattened turkeys, the wild ones are safe and secure today — at least in cemeteries. (The state offers both a spring and fall hunting season for turkeys, but hunters can't fire weapons in the middle of the city.)

"This I've seen for 40 years, a predilection for the cemetery," said Ted Walski, head of the state's wild turkey restoration efforts and a biologist with the state Fish and Game Department. "I don't know if they like to read the inscriptions or what. It's always been a little mysterious how they like going through cemeteries."

He said turkeys live off insects, which are plentiful in the lawn of the cemetery. They like berries. They'll also eat seeds such as acorns from oak trees and seeds on grasses and weeds.

Walski estimates there are 35,000 to 40,000 wild turkeys in the state. He was on hand when 25 were trapped in the Allegheny Mountains in the mid-1970s and brought to New Hampshire. He thought they would thrive in western New Hampshire, where most of the state's farms are found.

But he said they are all over the state. Backyard bird feeders, it seems, are as reliable as the detritus from a hay field or cornfield.

"They're opportunistic," Walski said. "They see the squirrels and song birds getting nutritious food, and they adapt to that."

He said the Valley Cemetery flock is small. Most flocks are at least a couple of dozen. Although the birds do fly — they spend the night in trees — they need a safe place to nest, and it's questionable whether that can be found in Valley Cemetery.

Valley is not the city's oldest cemetery, nor its biggest. Like a tattered history book, it holds the story of our city. As the mills grew and wealth accumulated, you can see it played out in markers at the cemetery.

There is no doubt some one-upmanship went on. The 12-foot obelisk of the Page family is supplanted by the Wells family stone, with a half-draped goblet atop the granite marker, which is topped by the 20 foot-obelisk of the Francis family.

Then there are the mausoleums, the sleek, modern-styled Gale family mausoleum; the Blood mausoleum, with a dome and elaborate fleurs-de-lis so heavy that they threaten the integrity of the structure.

And then there is the Smyth mausoleum. Centered on the edge of a steep hillside, its Greek columns give it the look of the Parthenon. I expect clouds to part and a beam of sun to shine on it.

They hold Manchester's forebearers. All so affluent and prominent, they lie today among turkeys.

Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and He can be reached at

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