Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
To many Massachusetts residents, wild turkeys may not seem so wild anymore. The big birds have infiltrated some of the state’s most urban areas, from Harvard’s campus in Cambridge to the streets of Dorchester and backyards in Brookline.
At one point wild turkeys were all but eradicated from Massachusetts. Now they’re seemingly everywhere, especially as winter turns to spring and their breeding season begins. So, how did turkeys become so ubiquitous in the eastern part of the state, and what does that mean for people who find them pecking and prancing through their neighborhoods?
“From our standpoint, the restoration of the wild turkey was one of the largest conservation success stories in American history,” said Matt DiBona, the National Wild Turkey Federation’s New England district biologist.
To get a well-rounded view of this turnaround, one must first go back to Colonial Times.
Turkeys were everywhere when Europeans first settled in America, even more so than today. The birds were abundant across the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic, the Southeast, and the Midwest. Populations of the birds were growing back then, according to Mass Audubon, which led to overhunting. On top of that, forests were steadily cut down for farmland as colonists moved further into the continent.
These factors combined to drive turkey populations lower and lower. By the mid-19th century, turkey numbers hit their nadir in most northeastern states. Back then, the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was killed on Mount Tom in 1851, according to Mass Audubon.
“It was a period when there weren’t organized fish and game agencies regulating harvests. It was more or less a free for all,” said David Scarpitti, a wildlife biologist with MassWildlife. “There was quite a long period when there weren’t any turkeys in the Northeast and in Massachusetts specifically.”
In the ensuing decades, conservationists employed a variety of strategies to try to restore wild turkey populations. Notably, this included putting pen-reared game birds into the wild with the hopes that they would survive and thrive.
They did not.
But technology kept improving, as did the science of wildlife management, Dibona said. New “cannon nets” were developed, allowing conservationists to capture wild turkeys from other parts of the country more easily.
Wild turkeys were still roaming areas in upstate New York, including Allegany State Park. In 1972, MassWildlife received permission to translocate some of these wild birds from New York into Western Massachusetts. A total of 37 birds were moved from their previous home and released into Beartown State Forest in Monterey, Massachusetts.
The wild turkeys already knew how to survive in areas extremely similar to those in Massachusetts.
“It was wildly successful. Instead of taking a farm-grown, pen-reared bird and sticking it out in the wild and expecting it to survive, these were actually bona fide wild birds. That made all the difference in the world,” Scarpitti said.
Those 37 birds became the seed population for the proliferation of wild turkeys throughout the state. Population numbers rapidly increased throughout Berkshire County and Franklin County. MassWildlife and other partners translocated Western Massachusetts birds into other parts of the state, Scarpitti said. This would have occurred naturally, but conservationists decided to accelerate the process even further.
By the early ’80s, there were enough turkeys in Western Massachusetts that officials authorized the first springtime hunting season for the birds. About 10 years later, officials approved a fall turkey hunting season. Translocation efforts continued until the early ’90s.
Now, Scarpitti says, turkeys are found just about everywhere in the state except Nantucket.
“We never reintroduced turkeys into Eastern Massachusetts proper, into the really developed areas inside of 495 or 128,” he said. “They just kind of got there on their own. I don’t think anybody really expected turkeys to become so common in these hyper-developed landscapes.”
There were 49 turkey-related requests filed to the City of Boston in 2022, down from 77 in 2021, according to data from the city.
Today, people can still hunt turkeys during spring and fall seasons. This year, the spring season runs from April 24 through May 20. The fall season runs from Oct. 2 through Nov. 25. They have become the second-most popular game species behind deer in Massachusetts, according to DiBona.
“Any time we have an opportunity to restore a native species to parts of its historic range, that’s fantastic. And turkeys have the added benefit of being a prized game species by hunters,” he said.
The spring season, when only males and a small number of “bearded hens” can be hunted, is by far the most popular. Last spring, 2,837 birds were harvested, according to state data. The number of turkeys harvested in the spring has stayed around 2,800 for the last decade. Just 230 bids were harvested last fall. Hunters tend to prioritize deer in the fall months, DiBona said.
Since most of the birds killed by hunters are male, hunting does not meaningfully impact population numbers, DiBona said. But experts have been careful not to expand hunting availability too much.
“I think we have been conservative in expanding our harvest seasons and strategies for turkeys because we’re trying to protect that investment we made in restoring them,” he said.
Although hunting does not significantly affect the number of turkeys in Massachusetts, the practice does do something else notable: It influences their behavior. Since hunting is not feasible in many eastern parts of the state, the turkeys there have become more comfortable with humans, Scarpitti said. This leads to more interactions with humans, which can often be negative.
Turkeys are social animals, he explained. They live in groups and maintain a literal pecking order, a hierarchy dictated by physical dominance. The birds in charge will then lead the rest of their group as they forage for food.
This tendency was on display in 2017, when a person in Randolph documented an unusual sight: a group of wild turkeys ominously circling a dead cat in the middle of the street.
When asked about the incident by Boston magazine, Scarpitti said the behavior was “really quite amazing.” He chalked it up two facts: that turkeys are naturally wary of cats, and that the birds usually follow a single leader as they roam neighborhoods looking for food. Scarpitti speculated that the lead bird became curious about the dead cat and began circling it. The rest of the group naturally followed their leader, causing the unusual scene.
When turkeys are closely habituated with humans, the males in particular can start acting out. This is most apparent in springtime, when the birds spread out from their large groups to breed.
“Because they’re not afraid of humans, they see another animal within their territory and they’re going to act aggressively towards it to establish their role in that pecking order,” Scarpitti said.
This aggression manifests itself in a “gang mentality,” he added. The birds will try to bully and intimidate people in their way. But it is important to not play their game.
“Usually, because they’re not used to being that close to wildlife, people fall right into their trap. They think it’s best to turn around and walk away from an aggressive bird. That’s exactly what that bird is trying to accomplish,” Scarpitti said.
His best advice for people who come into contact with an aggressive turkey is “stand your ground.” The birds want to attack from behind with their wings, beak, or bony spurs in their legs. People should keep the turkey in front of them and make loud noises or use an object like a broom or umbrella to create the impression that the turkey is under threat.
This is easier said than done. Just ask the man who challenged a turkey in Dorchester in March.
If people routinely kowtow to an aggressive turkey, it will likely just make the bird more confident and more aggressive, Scarpitti said.
The same concept can be applied to situations where turkeys are blocking roadways. Stubborn males will try to intimidate cars just like they would a human or another bird. Drivers will usually stop in the hopes that the turkey will simply move out of the way. This can cause dangerous traffic conditions, Scarpitti said.
“You just have to keep moving,” he said. “I’m not saying you mow the thing down at 60 miles an hour because that’s not safe either, but the turkey is not going to lay down under your tires and let itself be killed.”
Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
Stay up to date with everything Boston. Receive the latest news and breaking updates, straight from our newsroom to your inbox.
This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com