When Europeans first settled in Massachusetts, Wild Turkeys were plentiful throughout the state. With an increasing population, however, forests were gradually cut down for farmland, thus eliminating the turkey’s habitat. In 1851, the last Wild Turkey in Massachusetts was killed on Mount Tom.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, as we moved from an agricultural to an industrial economy, humans began to concentrate in factory towns, and eventually old farmlands reverted to forests. In 1972, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (now known as Mass Wildlife), in cooperation with the University of Massachusetts, received permission to live trap turkeys in New York state and release them in Massachusetts. Between 1972 and 1973, 37 birds were released. Today, the estimated fall population is over 15,000 birds.
An imposing figure, a Wild Turkey can stand four feet tall, with a large, bulky body covered with bronzy, iridescent feathers. The tom (male) has a reddish blue head, and a hairlike “beard” protruding from the breast. The smaller female is duller in coloration than the male.
In the spring, tom turkeys make their famous gobble in order to lure in females. Courtship begins when the tom spreads its tail, fluffs out its feathers, swells out the facial wattles, and struts in front of the females. Males are polygamous, and will mate with several females if given the opportunity.
The nest of a turkey is a shallow depression lined with leaves or grass. The female lays 10-15 eggs, which she incubates for 25-30 days. The precocial downy young are able to follow the female and search for their own food almost immediately after hatching.
The adults feed largely on plant material, including nuts, berries, grains, seeds, grass, roots and bulbs, but they will also supplement their diet with small invertebrates. The young feed mainly on insects.
Several weeks after the young are born, the female and young may join with one or more broods to form large flocks, which will stay together until late fall or early winter. At this time, the males (who are now larger than the brood hen) will leave to join flocks of adult males.
In the winter, turkeys form separate flocks comprised of males and females, which do not break up until spring. In April, the female flocks break up into groups of typically four individuals, usually attended by a single male.
Mass Audubon and MassWildlife recommend that homeowners not feed turkeys, both for the sake of the birds and the humans feeding them. The size of wild bird populations is controlled by food availability, and a steady supply of human-provided food allows weak birds to reproduce thereby diminishing the vitality of the species as a whole. Turkeys can also become aggressive, chasing people, pets, cars, and practically anything else that moves.
SITUATIONS AND SOLUTIONS
TURKEYS IN YARDS
When turkeys show up in yards in suburbia, it is almost always because the homeowners have bird feeders in their yard, and seed that has fallen to the ground has attracted them. Homeowners should keep the area under the feeders clean and, if necessary, stop feeding altogether to avoid attracting turkeys into the yard.
Stringing silver mylar streamers (found in party supply stores) may help to exclude turkeys from areas where they are unwanted. Place stakes that are two and a half feet high, around the area and attach the mylar to the stakes. The mylar blowing and reflecting the light at eye-level should discourage the turkeys from entering the area.
If turkeys become aggressive, try to find out if anyone else in the area is feeding them, and suggest that they stop. You can attempt to discourage the turkeys by harassment, such as banging pots and pans together. This disturbance has to be repeated frequently, and is sometimes not successful at all.
BIRDS AND THE LAW
All birds are protected by federal laws under the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, as well as by Massachusetts state laws. It is illegal to destroy, relocate or possess birds, their nests or their eggs. The only exceptions are non-native species: House Sparrow, European Starling, and Pigeon. Trained and licensed wildlife rehabilitators, who have passed a federal and/or state-administered test, are permitted to care for injured or orphaned wildlife.
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