By Seth Daniel
There aren’t too many comeback stories that begin with the phrase, ‘Gobble, Gobble,’ but the story of the once-prolific wild turkey in Massachusetts certainly begins and ends with just such an utterance.
Though the wild turkey disappeared from Massachusetts for nearly 180 years, the Thanksgiving bird was once everywhere in the state, including throughout Charlestown and neighboring locales.
It was so common in the wild that it is likely the precise reason turkey is served for the Thanksgiving meal. With so many wandering around, it’s likely that the first Thanksgiving took advantage of cooking up the bird because it was so common.
It was also such a common sight that Ben Franklin argued for it to be the national bird instead of the American Bald Eagle – saying it symbolized the early Americas more than anything else.
But by 1850, it was gone from Massachusetts.
“Really, by the early 1850s, it was extricated from the state,” said Wayne Petersen of the Mass Audubon Society. “Because of all the changes brought by coming Europeans with land uses, as well as hunting and targeted removal of them, they just didn’t make it. They were gone for a good long time.”
That said, the wild turkey in the last three or four years has re-established itself and made a complete comeback to Massachusetts – becoming so prevalent that they’ve adapted to not only living in the wild and the suburbs, but can often be found wandering around city streets in very urban environments as well.
It’s a story that Petersen said is fun, amusing and a great example of re-introducing a native bird that had been long-lost.
“It’s great to have them back,” he said. “In most cases, they are entertaining and the worst they can do is cause problems with traffic if they get into trouble on the roads. By and large, most people are mildly amused by them when they see them in the neighborhoods for the first time. I think it’s just a great story. They are indigenous and we have a whole holiday built around the wild turkey…Wild turkeys are to Thanksgiving what Santa Claus is to Christmas. I think it’s great.”
Turkeys didn’t just pop back into Massachusetts out of thin air though.
The effort to restore them began as early as the 1950s. Serious efforts were made to reintroduce them back then, but the varieties brought to the state were usually from the Southern states where they are still prevalent. Unfortunately, those birds could not acclimate to the harsh winters of Massachusetts and didn’t survive. In the 1970s, though, another group of turkeys from the Adirondack region of New York – where they are also very easily found in the wild – were introduced into the western Massachusetts region.
Later, after that group found some success, preservationists introduced them into the Quabbin Reservoir area. That was also successful, and the birds just kept moving further east in greater numbers until now you can find them almost anywhere – sometimes in the craziest places.
“Now you find them all over,” said Petersen. “Over the years, that group took hold in a huge way. It is no longer a surprise to anyone to see them in the suburbs or even in the cities. They have learned to live in close contact with people here and are very safe. Many people enjoy them. Other than being huge, they are quiet and passive. They are not known as being vicious birds.”
Petersen said they get reports all the time of turkeys in the middle of the city, in car lots, sleeping on doorsteps or holding up traffic in a congested business district.
“There are lots of reports of turkeys being turkeys,” he said. “They can hold up traffic and can be a pain if they get hit on Rt. 128 or Rt. 3, but that is spot on about where people are finding them. There is no question we get reports of them being in very odd places.”
Beyond the fun of the new and surprising sights of turkeys back in the communities where they haven’t been for 180 years or more, there is also the serious subject of brining a native species back to where it belongs – somewhat like the Bald Eagle’s success story.
“The wild turkey in Massachusetts is just another great argument for restoration efforts,” he said. “They were a native species here that was lost in time. They were here before we were here and it was our introduction that pushed them out. Now we have helped to bring them back. That’s certainly worth noting.”