The Backyard Naturalist – Wild Turkeys
With the exception of a few pockets of old-growth trees on perilously steep, un-loggable slopes in the White Mountains, most of New England’s forests are second growth. Our entire landscape had been almost stripped of trees by the 1850s, the land cleared for crops and the trees used for lumber or burned as fuel. The stone walls running through our woods here are ghosts from farm fields abandoned in the late 1800s when New Englanders lit out for less stony soil in the Midwest. What they left behind was a land emptied of creatures such as wolves, mountain lions, beavers, deer, black bears and wild turkeys. It’s striking how some of those creatures have never returned, while others seem sometimes almost pestilential in numbers.
When I was in college, my ornithology professor pointed to the wild turkey as an example of a wildlife restoration project gone almost too well. He told us how their rebound in Massachusetts had been so successful that he practically had to shoulder his way through a crowd of them to reach his car every morning. His amused indignation as he described the scene made me grin. I pictured wild turkeys blanketing the car, pecking at their reflections in the mirrors, and the windshield wipers swiping, flinging the birds off in all directions to clear the view.
This madcap vision points to a very real phenomenon: the unexpectedly rapid expansion of the turkey population in the region. Wiped out by the end of the 19th century through a combination of habitat loss and unregulated hunting, wild turkeys would have been a rare and exotic sight for a New Englander as late as the 1970s. Multiple attempts to reintroduce the birds failed utterly; then some attempts succeeded. Still, according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, by 1978, Massachusetts had a total turkey population of only 1,000 birds. Today, MassWildlife estimates the number of turkeys in the state to be somewhere around 30,000. This means that the explosion in turkey numbers occurred well within living memory for many of us, and the potential conflicts and friction points between us and them are not something we’ve had long to acclimate to.
Their population has grown not just in numbers, but in the habitats they can use. Other species long since driven out of the region (mountain lions, wolves) have failed to come back because they need broad swathes of contiguous forest with little human disturbance. Turkeys, on the other hand, seem to do all right in a patchwork of yards and small stands of trees. As long as they have cover, and some acorn- or nut-bearing trees for food, they are adaptable to a wide variety of New England landscapes.
The birds have happily moved into densely settled suburbs; Brookline has had some high-profile human-turkey conflicts in recent years. This is a theme in wildlife restoration: We want lost species brought back, but if they come back too well we get nervous. We seem to have this idea that wildlife ought to stay “over there” somewhere, mind its own business, not trouble us, our free-roaming pets, our unsecured trash barrels, or the birdseed set out for other, apparently more desirable, wild birds to eat. If you believe the media reports about turkeys, you’d think they were routinely kidnapping and savaging toddlers and the elderly.
It’s true that the birds are big and imposing, but kids have far more to fear from the neighbor’s angry terrier than from a turkey. Children born today will grow up in a New England full of these wild neighbors. Hopefully, as the years pass, generations of children will know these birds as their natural kindred, and as a sign of what humans are capable of when they take it upon themselves to heal at least a sliver of the wild world.