How well I remember my elation upon seeing a “rafter” of wild turkeys (yep, that’s what you call a flock of turkeys) on the front lawn of our home in Essex shortly after my family moved here in 1993. As an avid birder who’d previously lived in the Midwest and on the West Coast, I’d only encountered the bird a few times before. What a thrill!
More than 25 years later, I’m sorry to say that the thrill is gone. These days I see turkeys so frequently that I barely take notice. They can even be a nuisance. During the blizzard of February 2015, two turkeys blocked my entrance to the First Ipswich Bank in Essex and chased me back to my car when I cautiously approached the door. And last spring I was caught in a traffic back-up on School Street caused by some “Toms” (adult male turkeys) in full display mode strutting their stuff in the middle of the road. Apparently, they had more important things on their mind than the work-a-day schedules of the good people of Cape Ann.
In my personal transition from awe to annoyance, I’d begun to regard wild turkeys much as I do Canadian Geese. Yes, they might technically be wild, but aren’t they overplaying their hand just a tad? Ah, but perhaps I judge them too harshly. Afterall, it’s somewhat of a miracle that they avoided extinction. In fact, the reintroduction of wild turkeys is one of the feel-good, comeback stories of 20th century wildlife management.
The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) thrived in abundance prior to the arrival of Europeans in the early 17th century. As forest dwellers, these birds fed on acorns, seeds, berries, and small insects. Then as now, they mated in the spring, raised their young during the summer months, and roosted in trees to avoid predation.
The wild turkey population declined dramatically in the early 19th century as our forebears busily clear-cut most of the old-growth forests of New England. The few birds that survived were finished off by hunting. According to the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife, the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was shot in 1851, and for the next 120 years the New England landscape was devoid of them.
Reintroduction efforts began in the early 1970s. Small populations of the birds were relocated from upstate New York to the Berkshires. Subsequent in-state transplant efforts gradually moved the population of wild turkey east until they are now resident in every county in the state with an estimated state population of 30,000 to 35,000 birds. According to Chris Leahy, recently retired naturalist from Mass Audubon, the birds “thrive in human environments. We’ve created very good habitats for them.”
The resurgence of the wild turkey population has not been without its challenges. According to an article in Audubon magazine, the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife received over “150 turkey-related calls and complaints” in 2018. Here in Manchester, newly appointed Police Chief Todd Fitzgerald tells me that traffic stoppage by wild turkeys is a routine occurrence. The most memorable encounter on the local police blotter, Fitzgerald recalled, was several years ago when a mail carrier was chased down the street by a particularly aggressive bird.
Despite the challenges of co-existing with a booming wild turkey population, we should pause to give thanks to our fine feathered friends this Thanksgiving. Not simply because they are the bounty we’re about to receive, but rather because with all the habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity around the world today, we are truly fortunate to have these extraordinary birds share their native habitat with us.
Jim Behnke is a Manchester resident, MECT volunteer and former science publisher.