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Wild Turkeys

Return of the Native

During a walk along the Sudbury Aqueduct at this time of the year, you may encounter a group of wild turkeys. It will most likely consist of a hen with her half-dozen offspring, hatched earlier in the spring. They will be feeding on open ground, searching under trees and shrubs for acorns and seeds. Insects are included in their diet, and they may actually seem to be working cooperatively in the capture of grasshoppers. They will wander considerable distances in the open in search of food, but at any moment, in the face of danger, they can fly quickly to the security of branches high in nearby trees.

photo: M. G. Criscitiello

Although a few turkeys breed here in Newton each year, in most respects turkeys remain birds of the forest. They nest on the ground in a wooded area under protection of dense cover, and they roost and sleep in the upper branches of large trees. In the past they existed in large numbers throughout North America, serving as an important food source for Native Americans and later settlers. By the end of the 19th century most of the land in Massachusetts had been cleared for farming and its forests harvested for timber. As a consequence, wild turkeys disappeared entirely. The last few were seen in 1850 on Mount Tom just west of the Connecticut Valley. Other states in the East were similarly affected. In 1855 the American Sportsman gave this sad report on the status of turkeys: "In former times they wandered in vast armies from one end of our country to the other: but even in this day scarcely one is to be found on the whole Northern Atlantic sea-coast."

Starting in the early 1900s, efforts were made to restore turkeys in Massachusetts. At first, birds raised in game farms were used, but those failed to adapt to living in the wild. Although some states had achieved success in introducing wild birds, turkeys were still entirely absent from Massachusetts as recently as fifty years ago. In 1972 and 1973 the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) received permission to trap 37 wild turkeys in NewYork State. These were released in southern areas of Berkshire County, and within a few years it was evident that they had adapted successfully and were reproducing well. By 1978 the turkey count had risen to over a thousand birds, and many of their offspring were introduced to other areas of the state.

Some of these birds have moved from deep forests to suburban areas, and in the suburbs there have been increasing encounters with people. Turkeys may wander onto downtown sidewalks or interrupt automobile traffic. Turkeys may venture into backyards where birdseed from feeders is let fall to the ground. In some instances, particularly with males during breeding season, there has been aggressive posturing toward humans during encounters in gardens and yards.These birds will usually retreat if you make loud noises or send spray with a water hose. (MassWildlife's Web site offers advice about prevention of such encounters, with emphasis on keeping the ground under your feeders free of birdseed.)

Despite their occasional intrusions on city streets or in people's gardens, it seems only fair to welcome back these denizens of the forest and to share our parks and open spaces with them.

M. G. Criscitiello

photo: Henry Finch

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