Turkey Tales

posted in: Birds, Local Conservation | 0
A male wild turkey stands in profile, looking left, against a backdrop of leaf litter and tree trunks. The turkey's beard, bronzed plumage, and strong pink legs are all apparent.
Wild turkeys are a common sight all across Massachusetts these days, but it wasn’t always so! Note the turkey’s long, strong legs – ideal for running away from predators (including human hunters). Photo credit: Tom Murray

It’s the end of November, so many folks’ thoughts are turning to turkey. Domestic turkeys have a reputation for being docile and foolish, but their ancestral stock, the wild turkey, is anything but. Canny and quick, wild turkeys have always challenged hunters, with John James Audubon himself writing, “During melting snowfalls, they will travel to an extraordinary distance and are then followed in vain, it being impossible for hunters of any description to keep up with them. They have then a dangling and straggling way of running, which, awkward as it may seem, enables them to outstrip any other animal. I have often, when on a good horse, been obliged to abandon the attempt to put them up, after following them for several hours.” These resourceful survivors have been an integral part of the New England woodlands for thousands of years, but did you know that less than a century ago, they had completely disappeared from Massachusetts? 

Quick as they might be, wild turkeys were no match for the growing population of Massachusetts in the 18th and 19th centuries, which demanded land for farming, timber for building, and meat for eating. The former two demands led to the widespread clearing of the Commonwealth’s woodlands, and the latter increased hunting pressure on the remaining wild turkeys even as their forest homes shrank further and further. Turkeys rely on forest cover to hide from predators and provide them with their main summer and autumn food source: wild nuts. Acorns, beechnuts, and other seeds are a key component of wild turkey forage, as are various fruits, berries, and invertebrates. By 1851, wild turkeys were extinct in Massachusetts. 

A female turkey stands perched on a high tree branch, bare twigs and open sky behind her. She is in 3/4 profile, looking right, with her tail angled towards the camera.
Turkeys depend on wooded areas for food, as well as safe places to sleep. Whole flocks of turkeys will fly up and perch in tree branches to sleep safely out of reach of predators on the ground. Photo credit: Tom Murray

State wildlife officials began trying to bring the turkeys back in the early 20th century. The landscape had finally begun to reforest after the majority of US farming moved westward, allowing the many acres previously cleared for agriculture to become forest once again. Starting in 1911, captive turkeys were released into the wild by the hundreds to try to re-establish a breeding population. Unfortunately, these farm-raised birds didn’t have the wherewithal to survive wild living, and eight separate attempts to reintroduce turkeys failed during the succeeding decades, with a ninth attempt establishing only a small population that was dependent on continued food handouts from humans. In 1972, wild birds trapped in New York state were released in western Massachusetts, and with this hardy stock, the population began to increase. Numerous subsequent releases of wild birds and translocations from west to east helped turkeys retake the state.

A male turkey faces the camera, feathers fully puffed out and tail spread, blue and red neck and face skin on display and wings drooping. Behind him, three other turkeys are visible along the side of an asphalt road.
A male turkey struts his stuff by the side of a road while other males and females gather nearby. Photo credit: Tom Murray

Fast forward to 2021, and wild turkeys are everywhere. Residents from downtown Boston to Martha’s Vineyard to the Berkshires can now have their commutes interrupted by trotting families of turkeys in the road, while territorial males attack their own reflections in windows and the sides of cars. It turns out that our modern landscape suits turkeys just fine – not only have the forests come back, but they are complemented by extensive open edges in suburban areas, which are ideal for displaying during mating season. Turkeys appear to be here to stay, and that’s something that all fans of native wildlife can be thankful for. Have you had a recent turkey sighting? Tell us about it in the comments!