The wild turkey - essentially a streamlined version of its domestic counterpart - is a resilient, prolific and strikingly handsome bird.
Black to blackish-bronze with white wing bars, blackish-brown tail feathers and a bluish-gray to red head (depending on the bird's emotional state), "toms" or male wild turkeys weigh about 16 to 24 pounds. They sport a hair-like "beard" which protrudes from the breast bone. Females, called hens, are smaller - about 9 to 12 pounds.
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 abandoned, 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 exceeds 15,000 birds.
Turkeys are promiscuous, and one tom may mate with several hens. In the Northeast, gobbling usually starts around mid-March, peaking in late April or early May. Hens mate several times during the season and start to lay eggs after the first mating. The nest is a shallow, leaf-lined depression on the ground, and the average clutch contains 12 to 15 eggs. Hatching occurs after an incubation period of 27 to 28 days, but only about 35 to 40 percent of the nests are successful - primarily due to adverse weather conditions or predation of the eggs or hen.
In Massachusetts, broods usually appear about the first week of June. The young poults are active as soon as they hatch, and about 25 to 50 percent will survive until the fall. Predators such as foxes and goshawks may take a few young turkeys, and cold spring rains are also a hazard since the poorly-feathered young birds are easily chilled.
Turkeys - except for poults, which feed heavily on insects - feed mainly on plant material, including acorns, nuts (especially hickory), grapes, skunk cabbage, barberry and other berries and tubers. During the winter, open springs and seeps are an important source of food.