Is it me, or are wild turkeys experiencing a population boom? Driving through a suburban neighborhood in Wilmington recently, I counted a group of 17 turkeys on one lawn. And it seems like I see them everywhere. On the median strip on the highway, next to the drive-through at McDonald’s, and crossing roads all over the place — even in the city.
Last year while driving into Boston during morning rush hour there was a turkey blocking traffic on Mystic Avenue in Somerville near the McGrath Highway. Concerned for the turkey’s safety, and my getting to work on time, I called the Somerville police, who informed me the turkey’s name was Tom, and he frequently hung out in that area.
“Just beep your horn a few times and he should move out of the way,” the police officer told me.
Several cars ahead of me did beep their horns, and eventually Tom moved off the road.
“Wild turkeys are really winners,” said Wayne Petersen, Mass Audubon’s director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas program. “They’ve done very well in Massachusetts.”
But that wasn’t always the case. Wild turkeys were widespread throughout Massachusetts when the Pilgrims arrived, but were eventually extirpated from the state due to hunting and habitat destruction, said Petersen. The last known native wild turkey in Massachusetts was killed in 1851.
Attempts to repatriate wild turkeys in the state were made by releasing pen-raised turkeys in 1911 and 1947, but those efforts failed, said Petersen. It wasn’t until the early 1970s, when 37 wild turkeys from the Adirondacks in upstate New York were released in the Berkshires, that the big birds finally started to make a comeback in the Bay State.
By the fall of 1978, Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife estimated that there were about 1,000 wild turkeys in Massachusetts. As the western Massachusetts population grew, wild turkeys were relocated to other parts of the state, and others arrived on their own from neighboring states. By 1980, turkeys were doing well enough that a spring hunting season was started, and in 1990 a fall hunting season was added, Petersen said.
Now the turkey population in Massachusetts is estimated to be between 30,000 and 35,000, according to the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Web page on wild turkeys.
Wild turkeys, which are found across the United States, mate in the spring.
“They become quite amorous in late April and May,” said Petersen. “That’s when you hear them gobbling and displaying. Males have their tails fanned out, and the females are usually nearby, paying no attention to the males.”
Petersen said male wild turkeys, which have a hair-like beard that protrudes from their breast bone, can be up to 46 inches tall and weigh between 16 and 25 pounds. He said males can be aggressive and intimidating during mating season, but they’re not dangerous.
“They’re goofy as can be,” said Petersen. “Sometimes they’ll even attack their own reflection.”
The Mass Wildlife website advises people not to let turkeys intimidate them, and states, “Don’t hesitate to scare or threaten a bold, aggressive turkey with loud noises, swatting with a broom, or water sprayed from a hose.”
After mating season is over, the male turkeys, called toms, form bachelor groups and don’t have anything to do with their offspring, said Petersen.
The females, known as hens, are smaller than males. They can grow up to 37 inches tall, and weigh 9 to 12 pounds.
The females nest on the ground, said Petersen, often near the base of a tree. Wild turkeys don’t build an extensive nest, usually just a scrape on the ground with some leaves, where they lay 10 to 12 eggs.
The Mass Wildlife website says that the eggs hatch after about 28 days, and the offspring, known as poults, can be seen tagging along with their mother around the beginning of June. The young turkeys stay with their mother for about four to five months.
Predators such as foxes and hawks may take young turkeys, according to Mass Wildlife. But once wild turkeys are fully grown they have few natural enemies, said Petersen, and can live up to 15 years.
“Coyotes can eat them,” said Petersen. “But automobiles and hunters are really their biggest threats.”
Despite their large size, wild turkeys can fly short distances, said Petersen. At night they fly up into trees to roost, where they are safe from predators.
“Wild turkeys have sharp eyes and keen hearing,” said Petersen. “In forested areas like Western Massachusetts, they are very wary. Totally different from the suburbs.”
Petersen also said turkeys are surprisingly beautiful birds, with stunning, bronzy toned iridescent feathers.
“When they spread their tails, they’re very beautiful, quite handsome birds,” said Petersen. “In fact, Ben Franklin wanted wild turkeys to be our national emblem. Forget the bald eagle.”
Don Lyman is a biologist, freelance science journalist, and hospital pharmacist who lives north of Boston. Send your questions about nature and wildlife in the suburbs to firstname.lastname@example.org.