Don’t turn your back and other tips for when you cross paths with a wild turkey

A state wildlife biologist explains the behavior of the birds that have taken over neighborhoods around the state.

Wild Turkey Behavior
Wild turkeys crossed Pudding Brook Drive in Pembroke. –Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

Hopefully by now you’re prepared for the gobbler that will end up on your plate. But are you ready to cross paths with one of the thousands of wild turkeys in the state that have been known to strut through city squares and backyards, and menace neighborhoods?

There’s been an outpouring of complaints about wild turkeys in Boston and its neighboring suburban cities and towns over the last three years, according to the Associated Press. More than 100 complaints have been made about the birds and their behavior since the start of last year in Somerville, Belmont, and Brookline, as the turkeys have damaged cars and gardens with their pecking and chased after people and their pets.

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According to the AP, there have also been at least five cases in Massachusetts where the wild birds became so aggressive with humans that they were shot by police.

To learn more about how to deal with troublesome turkeys, we spoke with Dave Scarpitti, a state wildlife biologist with MassWildlife.

“There’s certainly a lot of turkeys in a lot of places that are sort of behaving badly right now,” he said.

Below, five things to keep in mind when encountering one of the wild turkeys that have taken over neighborhoods across the state.

They’re here because they have “no cause” to be afraid

Wild Turkeys Behavior
Wild turkeys walk through a residential neighborhood in Brookline. —Collin Binkley / AP

The teeming population is the result of a successful conservation effort. Turkeys, though once very abundant during colonial times in the state, became extinct in Massachusetts by 1850. In 1972, state wildlife officials worked to reintroduce the birds into the state, starting with 37 birds in Western Massachusetts.

Now, Scarpitti estimates, there are between 25,000 and 30,000 of the predominantly ground-dwelling birds gobbling throughout the state.

“Now we see them in virtually every community —  in suburban and urban areas alike, including all of our more rural areas of the state as well,” Scarpitti said. “The only exception to that is Nantucket.”

According to the wildlife biologist, the the abundance of the birds in densely populated areas where they frequently come into contact with humans has led to a change in behavior.

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“Turkeys are becoming so accustomed to being around people that there’s just this loss of sort of natural human and animal behavior,” he said. “The animals aren’t necessarily tremendously afraid of humans because they have no cause to be. They’re in and around them day after day after day.”

Chase them off when you see them

Wild Turkeys Behavior
A wild turkey crosses Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge. —Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe

Scarpitti said it’s “never a bad idea” for a capable adult to chase a turkey off if it or its friends have ambled into your yard or across your path. Doing so helps remind the bird that they should be afraid of humans, he said.

“If everybody who encountered a turkey in an urban area or a suburban area chased them away, we wouldn’t have a fraction of the problems that we have,” Scarpitti said. “Because they would just become generally more — they wouldn’t suffer that behavior breakdown and that habituation to people.”

Don’t turn your back

Wild Turkey Behavior
A wild turkey crosses the sidewalk on Beacon Street. —Mark Wilson / The Boston Globe

It’s most often the male turkeys, which can weigh 20 pounds or more, that will act with a persistent aggressive behavior, according to Scarpitti. If you do encounter a threatening bird, he said to not let yourself be intimidated — be forceful with it. He said to move toward it, make yourself larger, and clap and make noises.

“Essentially what they’re trying to do in those situations is assert dominance, so what you just need to do is become the dominant person in that interaction,” he said.

Scarpitti said he advises people “try and beat it at its own game.” If you’re around your house, shoo it away with a rake or broom, or spray it with a hose.

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Doing so will give the turkey the message that where it is isn’t safe or comfortable, Scarpitti said.

“You never want to sort of turn your back and run away,” he said. “That kind of feeds into their desire to be dominant in terms of their social status.”

Male turkeys can be particularly aggressive during their breeding season, which falls from March through May.

Watch out for their spurs

Wild Turkeys Behavior
Wild turkeys walk along a street in a residential neighborhood in Brookline. —Collin Binkley / AP

If you are standing up to a bullying wild turkey, you should be wary of the hard boney nail they have sticking out of the backs of their legs called “spurs.”

“What they’ll try and do is use their feet and kick you with those spurs which obviously, they’re not razor sharp by any means, but certainly they’re not anything to be taken lightly either,” Scarpitti said.

You should also be careful of their wings, which can also cause some injury, and the birds will also try and peck with their beak.

“We’ve seen some scrapes and some bruises and some light lacerations,” Scarpitti said. “Nothing that I would say is overly life-threatening, but, certainly any time wildlife is physically contacting humans, it’s something to be concerned and alarmed about for sure.”

He said MassWildlife works with local officials, animal control, and police department to address problem turkeys.

Don’t feed them — intentionally or otherwise

Wild Turkey Behavior

The reason why turkeys are so problematic, according to Scarpitti, is because of food. More specifically, because people are feeding them — both intentionally and not.

The wildlife biologist said that in “virtually every situation” a bird feeder — set out for the songbirds everyone loves — is the driving source behind a turkey problem.

Turkeys catching a free meal under a bird feeder is what leads to the progressive degeneration of the wild bird’s behavior — and lack of fear — toward people.

“Feeding is absolutely driving the abundance of turkeys in these populous areas,” Scarpitti said.

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