NEW YORK – When New Yorkers mention wild turkey these days they’re not referring to Kentucky bourbon. They’re talking about Zelda.

The Thanksgiving season seems the right time to tell the tale of a brave and brazen bird who has defied the odds of survival and bewitched the city with her avian allure.

No one knows exactly where she came from, but this lone female wild turkey trotted into Manhattan about five years ago and took up residence in Battery Park at the southern tip of the island.

Like many singles in Lower Manhattan, Zelda is not exactly a homebody. She – or at least a convincing look-alike – has been spotted to the north in Greenwich Village and tony Tribeca.

Because of her restless roaming, she was named after novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, who was said to aimlessly wander the city during her various nervous breakdowns.

The same has been speculated about the turkey.

“Some people have even questioned her mental state because she has a desire to live in such a strange environment. She’s a different turkey,” said Sarah Aucoin, director of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation’s Urban Park Rangers.

“She definitely struts around and you can’t miss her when you’re near her,” Aucoin said of the approximately 12-pound bird. Conservationists generally frown on feeding wild birds, but Aucoin said the city makes an exception for Zelda “because she’s such a touchstone and has chosen to live in such an unusual place for a turkey.”

Jessie Auritt, a video editor in New York, can testify to that.

“We saw a wild turkey walking in the street … she was kind of crossing the street,” said Auritt, who was strolling with her sister near Battery Park last June.

“I thought, ‘Why is there a turkey here?’ … I was confused but more concerned for this turkey’s life. At first I thought it was someone’s pet or that it had escaped from the zoo,” said Auritt, who snapped a photo to convince skeptical friends that she hadn’t hallucinated.

In fact, Zelda is something of a party girl wannabe.

“We believe she leaves Battery Park to look for a mate. But she always returns,” said Aucoin, whose rangers keep tabs on Zelda’s love life – or lack thereof.

So far, Zelda has searched for love in vain. There is at least one other wild turkey in Manhattan – in Central Park – but it’s also a female.

That doesn’t stop Zelda from hoping – or laying eggs that will never hatch. Sympathetic park rangers remove the unfertilized eggs to preserve Zelda’s life.

“Turkeys don’t feed while they’re nesting,” Aucoin said, “so she would remain on the eggs and put her health in jeopardy.”

Zelda doesn’t seem to be unduly upset by the removal of her eggs, Aucoin said, because only about 30 percent of wild turkey hatchlings survive infancy.

Lack of motherhood actually may be a boon to the bird, according to Glenn Phillips, executive director of New York City Audubon. “Probably, she’ll live longer,” he said, noting that she can devote less energy to nurturing and more to staying alive.

Zelda may be alone, but there are more wild turkeys than ever in the Northeast, where they nearly were eradicated in the mid-19th Century as their forest habitats gave way to farmland.

“Their populations are expanding throughout the region. They’re a success story,” said Phillips, noting that they enjoy the acorns, seeds and insects parkland provides.

Although swimming “isn’t their preferred method of locomotion,” wild turkeys not only can swim, they can fly in short bursts, Phillips said. “So there’s no place in New York City that’s really inaccessible to a wild turkey.”

By comparison, domestic turkeys have wings that often are clipped and are bred for breast meat, which makes them top-heavy and ungainly fliers. Wild turkeys like Zelda are more svelte and aerodynamic.

Majestic in richly colored plumage, the wild turkey was Benjamin Franklin’s first choice as America’s national bird.

“The Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original Native of America,” he wrote.

Indeed, John James Audubon chose the wild turkey as the first image he painted for his so-called Elephant Folio of “Birds in America” in 1826, according to Delta Willis, senior communications manager of the National Audubon Society.

But the eagle aced out the wild turkey as national bird.

With the economy tanking, is there any danger that someone may want to have Zelda for Thanksgiving dinner?

The experts doubt it.

“There is something connecting about the turkey,” Phillips said. “It is one of the only domesticated animals that is from North America.”

In any event, wild turkeys, including Zelda, are no wimps.

“Everyone has boundaries. Even turkeys,” Aucoin said. “If you get too close, she has a self-defense mechanism that kicks in: She pecks.”


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