Why are there so many wild turkeys near Boston?

Wild turkeys block traffic in Halifax, Massachusetts. John Tolomake/The Boston Globe

For many Massachusetts residents, wild turkeys may not seem so wild anymore. Large birds have infiltrated some of the state’s most urban areas, from the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge to the streets of Dorchester and the backyards of Brooklyn.

At some point, wild turkeys were wiped out from Massachusetts. Now they seem to be everywhere, especially as winter turns into spring and their breeding season begins. So how did turkeys become so ubiquitous in the eastern part of the state, and what does that mean for the people who find them pecking and jumping in their neighborhoods?

“From our perspective, the recovery of wild turkeys has been one of the largest conservation success stories in American history,” said Matt DiBona, New England National Area biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Steep decline

For a comprehensive view of this transformation, one must first go back to the Colonial Times.

Turks were everywhere when Europeans first settled America, even more so than today. The birds were abundant across the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Midwest. The bird population was growing at the time, according to Mass Audubon, which led to poaching. Furthermore, forests were steadily cleared for farmland as colonists moved into the continent.

These factors combined to drive the turkey population down. By the mid-nineteenth century, turkey numbers had hit rock bottom in most of the northeastern states. At the time, the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was killed on Mount Tom in 1851, according to Mass Audubon.

“It was a period when there were no regulated agencies for fish and game regulating the harvest. It was a fairly free-for-all,” said David Scarpetti, a wildlife biologist with MassWildlife. “There was a long period when there weren’t any turkeys in the Northeast and in Massachusetts. specially.”

bouncing back

In the following decades, conservationists used a variety of strategies to try to restore wild turkey populations. Notably, this involved pen-bred birds being placed in the wild in the hope that they would survive and thrive.

they did not.

Technology has continued to improve, DiBona said, as has the science of wildlife management. New “cannon nets” have been developed, allowing conservationists to capture wild turkeys from other parts of the country more easily.

Wild turkeys were still roaming areas of upstate New York, including Allegheny State Park. In 1972, MassWildlife received permission to transport some of these wild birds from New York to western Massachusetts. A total of 37 birds were relocated from their previous home and released in Beartown State Forest in Monterey, Massachusetts.

The turkeys already knew how to survive in areas very similar to those in Massachusetts.

“It was very successful. Instead of taking a farm-grown bird and raising it in pens and sticking it out in the wild and expecting it to survive, these were actually bona fide wild birds. It made all the difference in the world,” Scarpetti said.

These 37 birds became the seed group for breeding wild turkeys across the state. Population numbers increased rapidly throughout Berkshire County and Franklin County. Scarpetti said MassWildlife and other partners have moved the western Massachusetts birds to other parts of the state. This would have happened naturally, but conservationists decided to speed up the process even more.

By the early 1980s, there were enough turkeys in western Massachusetts that officials allowed the first spring hunting season for the birds. About 10 years later, officials approved a fall turkey hunting season. Transfer efforts continued into the early 1990s.

A wild turkey walks down Congress Street in downtown Boston on January 11, 2022. Craig F Walker/The Boston Globe

Now, says Scarpitti, turkeys are found almost everywhere in the state except Nantucket.

“We never reintroduced turkeys into eastern Massachusetts, into the already well-developed areas inside the 495th or 128th,” he said. “They just kind of got there on their own. I don’t think anyone really expected turkeys to become so common in these highly developed landscapes.”

49 turkey-related orders were placed with the City of Boston in 2022, down from 77 in 2021, according to data from the city.

Today, people can still hunt turkey during the spring and fall. This year, the spring season runs from April 24th to May 20th. The fall season runs from October 2nd to November 25th. And they’ve become the second most popular game species after deer in Massachusetts, according to DeBona.

“Anytime we have a chance to bring a native species back into parts of its historical range, it’s great. Turkeys also have the added benefit of being a prized game by hunters.”

Springtime, when males and a few “bearded hens” can be hunted, is by far the most popular. Last spring, 2,837 birds were harvested, according to state data. The number of turkeys harvested in the spring has remained around 2,800 for the past decade. Only 230 attempts were harvested last fall. DeBona said hunters tend to prioritize deer in the fall months.

Since most of the birds killed by hunters are males, DiBona said, hunting does not significantly affect population numbers. But experts were careful not to expand the availability of the catch too much.

“I think we’ve been conservative in expanding our harvest seasons and turkey strategies because we’re trying to protect that investment that we’ve made in getting them back,” he said.

human conflict

A wild turkey crosses a sidewalk on Beacon Street in Brooklyn, October 19, 2007. – Mark Wilson / The Boston Globe

Although hunting does not significantly affect the population of turkeys in Massachusetts, the practice does something else of note: it affects their behavior. Scarpetti said that because hunting is not possible in many eastern parts of the state, the turkeys there have become more comfortable with humans. This leads to more interactions with humans, which can often be negative.

He explained that Turks are social animals. They live in groups and maintain a literal pecking system, a hierarchy dictated by physical dominance. The responsible birds will then lead the rest of their group as they forage.

The trend emerged in 2017, when someone in Randolph documented an unusual sight: a group of wild turkeys circling a dead cat in the middle of the street.

When asked about the incident before Boston magazine, Scarpitti said the behavior was “really cool”. He framed it in two facts: that turkeys are naturally wary of cats, and that birds usually follow a single leader as they roam neighborhoods in search of food. Scarpetti speculated that the lead bird became curious about the dead cat and began circling around it. The rest of the group naturally followed their leader, causing an extraordinary scene.

When turkeys become more closely accustomed to humans, males in particular can begin to act out. This is most evident in the spring, when birds scatter from their large groups to breed.

“Because they are not afraid of humans, they see another animal within their territory and will act aggressively towards it to establish their role in the arrangement,” Scarpitti said.

He added that this aggression is manifested in the “gang mentality”. Birds will try to bully and scare people in their path. But it is important not to play their game.

“Usually, because they’re not used to being close to wildlife, people fall into their trap. They think it’s best to turn around and get away from an aggressive bird. That’s exactly what this bird is trying to achieve,” Scarpetti said.

The best advice he gives to people dealing with an aggressive turkey is to “stand your ground.” Birds want to attack from behind with their wings, beak, or bony spurs on their legs. People should keep the turkey in front of them and make loud noises or use something like a broom or umbrella to create the impression that the turkey is under threat.

Easier said than done. Just ask the man who challenged a turkey in Dorchester in March.

Scarpetti said that if people routinely tend to an aggressive turkey, it will likely make the bird more confident and more aggressive.

The same concept can be applied to situations where turkeys block the paths. Stubborn males will try to scare off cars just as they would a human or other bird. Drivers usually stop hoping the turkey will simply move out of the way. Scarpetti said this could cause dangerous traffic conditions.

“You just have to keep moving,” he said. “I’m not saying you go over the thing at 60mph because that’s not safe either, but a turkey isn’t going to duck under your tires and let itself get killed.”


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