|A common sighting: wild turkeys in the road.|
On a recent Sunday morning, a neighbor saw a turkey pecking at my dad’s home-office door in Marshfield. Across town, I spied a small flock of turkeys strutting across my back yard. We are used to squirrels and chipmunks frolicking in the yard, but turkeys? Even in big cities, wild turkey sightings are becoming more and more the norm.
Wild turkeys are not new to New England, but it has been a long time since it was common to see one anywhere other than on the dinner table. In Colonial times, turkeys were quite prevalent, but like many other species, they were hunted or driven away as human settlement expanded. By the early 1800s, a wild turkey was a rare sight — largely because the hardwood forests they called home had been cut down.
There were attempts to reintroduce turkeys to Massachusetts in the early to mid- twentieth century, but these all proved unsuccessful. However in the early 1970s a flock of 37 wild turkeys were set free in Berkshire County, and by 1978, the turkey population had grown to 1,000. Some of these birds were relocated elsewhere in the state, and now the estimated turkey population is more than 15,000.
When you see a wild turkey, there’s no mistaking it for another bird. A male turkey, or tom, is large – 16-24 lbs. – and when it struts, its head turns bright red. Across short distances, it can run up to 20 miles per hour. Its feathers are black or brown, with white bars on the wings, and a hair-like “beard” extends from its breast. During mating season, mid-March to early May, it puffs out its feathers, fans its tail, and gobbles. As you may already have discovered, it’s a little scary and a little weird to encounter one at close range.
The hens are smaller, only 9-12 lbs. After mating, a turkey hen lays 12-15 eggs in a shallow leaf-lined nest on the ground. These hatch after about a month, so in early June we begin to see baby turkeys, or poults, . . . as long as the foxes don’t get them. Soon after hatching, the poults instinctively follow their mother, who provides protection and food. They learn quickly how to climb into trees at night, where it is safer to roost.
Wild turkeys live in flocks, and each flock has its own system of social ranking. This “pecking order” determines which turkeys are dominant over the others. This is not a pun – the dominant bird actually has the privilege to peck on a bird of lesser rank. This behavior can be a nuisance – or downright frightening – if a turkey deems a human or other animal as subordinate. Especially during breeding season, a turkey is prone to peck at or attack any potential threat. In addition to other animals, turkeys sometimes peck at shiny objects like cars — or even reflections.
But you don’t have to worry about a wild turkey actually eating you. They consume a primarily vegetarian diet, including acorns, nuts, grapes, skunk cabbage, plus some berries and tubers. They will also scratch at the ground in search of food. Poults also eat insects.
Turkeys are fascinating to observe, especially from a distance, or through a window where’s there’s no threat of attack. The Massachusetts Department of Fish and Wildlife offers these tips for preventing conflicts with turkeys.
• Don’t Feed Turkeys. Feeding, whether direct or indirect, can cause turkeys to act tame and may lead to bold or aggressive behavior, especially in the breeding season.
• Keep Bird Feeder Areas Clean. Use feeders designed to keep seed off the ground, as the seed attracts turkeys and other wild animals. Clean up spilled seed from other types of feeders daily. Remove feeders in the spring, as there is plenty of natural food available for all birds.
• Don’t Let Turkeys Intimidate You. Don’t hesitate to scare or threaten a bold, aggressive turkey with loud noises, swatting with a broom or water sprayed from a hose. A dog on a leash is also an effective deterrent.
• Cover Windows or Other Reflective Objects. If a turkey is pecking at a shiny object such as a vehicle or window, cover or otherwise disguise the object. Harass the bird by chasing it, squirting with a hose or other means of aggression.
• Protect Your Gardens and Crops. You can harass turkeys searching for food in your gardens. Dogs tethered on a run can also be effective in scaring turkeys away from gardens. Netting is another option to employ. In agricultural situations, some scare devices are effective.
• Educate Your Neighbors. Your efforts will be futile if neighbors are providing food for turkeys or neglecting to act boldly towards the birds. It requires the efforts of the entire neighborhood to help keep wild turkeys wild.
By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, correspondent
Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.