Wild Turkey in Massachusetts
At the time of colonial settlement the wild turkey was widespread in Massachusetts, ranging from Cape Cod to the Berkshires. As settlement progressed, however, hardwood forests were cut and the range of the turkey began to shrink. By the early 1800s turkeys were rare in the state, and the last known native bird was killed on Mt. Tom in 1851.
During the period following the Civil War, land use patterns began to change. Farms were aban-doned, factory towns grew and the woodland began to regenerate. Between 1914 and 1947 there were at least four unsuccessful attempts made by MassWildlife to restore wild turkeys to Massachusetts. In 1960, reflecting on the success of turkey restoration efforts in other eastern states, MassWildlife, in cooperation with the University of Massachusetts, tried again - this time introducing 22 turkeys (mostly of game farm origin) into the Quabbin Reservation. After an initial surge, numbers dropped quickly and only a marginal population persisted. Game farm turkeys were clearly unsatisfactory for re-establishing a self-sustaining population.
On the other hand, releases of strictly wild birds proved highly successful. Between 1952 and 1974, the estimated nationwide turkey population grew from about 320,000 to 1,300,000, and the number of states permitting some form of open hunting season climbed from 15 to 39. Recognizing the need for redirecting its restoration project, MassWildlife made contact with other eastern states, and in 1972 was granted permission by New York to live-trap wild birds for transfer to Massachusetts. Between 1972 and 1973, 37 birds were captured in New York and released in southern Berkshire County. The new flock grew slowly at first, but expanded rapidly after about 1976 with the estimated fall 1978 population totaling about 1,000 birds. Supplemented by an overflow from adjacent states, turkeys ranged throughout most parts of Massachusetts west of the Connecticut River. In-state transplants of the birds, conducted from 1979 to 1996, expanded the range of the bird into the central, northeastern and southeastern parts of the state. The estimated fall population of turkeys now is estimated between 20,000-25,000 birds!
The wild turkey is a strikingly handsome bird. Black to blackish-bronze with white wing bars, blackish-brown tail feathers and a bluish-gray to red head, "toms" or male wild turkeys weigh about 16 to 24 pounds. They sport a hair-like "beard" which protrudes from the breast bone. When a tom is strutting, its head turns a bright red. Females, called hens, are smaller - about 9 to 12 pounds.
Turkeys are active during the day, roosting at night to avoid predators. In residential areas, it is not uncommon for turkeys to roost on railings, roofs, or sometimes on vehicles. Gobbling, during breeding season, usually starts around mid-March, peaking in early May. This is when the males puff out their feathers, fan their tails and "strut their stuff." Hens lay eggs after the first mating. The nest is a shallow, leaf-lined depression on the ground, and contains 12 to 15 eggs. Hatching occurs after an incubation period of 28 days. Broods usually appear in the first week of June. The young poults are active as soon as they hatch. Predators such as foxes and goshawks may take a few young turkeys, and cold spring rains can easily chill the poorly-feathered young birds. Young turkeys remain with their mother for at least 4 to 5 months. Turkeys learn from each other, often by imitation, and, by associating with older more experienced birds, remember the layout of their home ranges and the location of various foods.
Adult turkeys feed mainly on plant material, including acorns, nuts (especially hickory), grapes, skunk cabbage, barberry and other berries and tubers. They will scratch the ground seeking food. Poults feed heavily on insects during the summer. During the winter, open springs and seeps are an important source of food.
The Pecking Order
Wild turkeys live in flocks organized by "pecking order." This pecking order is a social ranking in which each bird is dominant over or "pecks on" birds of lesser social status. Pecking order has implications for people and nuisance turkeys. Turkeys may attempt to dominate or attack people that the birds view as subordinates. This behavior is most noticeable during breeding season. Once bold behavior is established, it can be very difficult or impossible to change. Turkeys may also respond aggressively to shiny objects or reflections. Since the stimulus to drive away the "intruder" is strong, and since the reflection does not disappear when the turkey confronts it, the bird will often continually display towards or attack the reflection until changing light conditions cause it to vanish.
In some areas, there are a feral flocks of "pen-raised" turkeys. These are turkeys whose ancestors have been raised in captivity for generations. Although they look just like wild turkeys, they act tame and can become pests. It is illegal to release or possess these birds, but people sometimes do so in ignorance of the law. People should not feed these birds, or any wild turkeys as it will alter their shyness and interfere with their ability to find food on their own.
Wild turkeys are prized gamebirds and have responded remarkably well to recent restoration and management programs. They have shown considerable adaptability to widely different habitat conditions, and, under responsible management programs, can provide high quality hunting without detriment to the overall population. Restoration efforts in Massachusetts have been directed toward the ultimate goal of a huntable population - a goal that was achieved in the spring of 1980 when the first Bay State spring gobbler season opened. The hunt is by permit only so that hunter density can be kept to an optimum low level - thus insuring a quality hunting experience. With eleven counties now open in spring, virtually all hunters who apply are successful in getting a permit.
Spring gobbler seasons are a challenging way to hunt these wary birds. Because toms can breed with several hens - and the season is timed to coincide with the period when the protected hens are already on their nests - gobblers can be taken without adversely affecting production. A well established turkey population can easily withstand a limited either-sex hunting season without adverse effects, however, and this is the case in western and central parts of the state where the first fall turkey season opened in 1990. Combined with the spring gobbler season, this either-sex fall season offers hunters greater opportunities to bag one of North America's premier game species. Spring or fall, turkey hunting requires a high degree of skill in imitating the calls of the birds to lure them within range. It is a challenge found in few other types of hunts, and with fewer than one in fifteen hunters being successful, the turkey is truly a bird of trophy status.
Turkeys are back in the Northeast, and they are here to stay thanks to the support of members of the National Wild Turkey Federation, sportsmen and other interested conservation minded citizens. Recently, the wild turkey was designated as the state's official game bird! Under careful management, the future looks bright for turkeys; sportsmen, naturalists and other wildlife enthusiasts welcome their return.
- DON'T FEED TURKEYS Keep wild things wild! Feeding, whether direct or indirect, can cause turkeys to act tame and may lead to bold or aggressive behavior, especially in the breeding season.
- KEEP BIRD FEEDER AREAS CLEAN Use feeders designed to keep seed off the ground, as the seed attracts turkeys and other wild animals. Clean up spilled seed from other types of feeders daily. Remove feeders in the spring, as there is plenty of natural food available for all birds.
- DON'T LET TURKEYS INTIMIDATE YOU Don't hesitate to scare or threaten a bold, aggressive turkey with loud noises, swatting with a broom or water sprayed from a hose. A dog on a leash is also an effective deterrent.
- COVER WINDOWS OR OTHER REFLECTIVE OBJECTS If a turkey is pecking at a shiny object such as a vehicle or window, cover or otherwise disguise the object. Harass the bird by chasing it, squirting with a hose or other means of aggression.
- PROTECT YOUR GARDENS AND CROPS You can harass turkeys searching for food in your gardens. Dogs tethered on a run can also be effective in scaring turkeys away from gardens. Netting is another option to employ. In agricultural situations, some scare devices are effective.
- EDUCATE YOUR NEIGHBORS Pass this information along: Your efforts will be futile if neighbors are providing food for turkeys or neglecting to act boldly towards the birds. It requires the efforts of the entire neighborhood to help keep wild turkeys wild. Turkeys are important and valuable birds in Massachusetts. They are classified as game birds for which regulated hunting seasons and management programs have been established. If you are experiencing problems with turkeys or have any questions regarding them, contact your nearest MassWildlife District Office.
- More detailed info on turkey conflict prevention.