PHOTO COURTESY OF GARRY KESSLER
This female wild turkey forages in a grassy area like those behind Mill Pond School. Wild turkeys have been known to tie up traffic as they amble across Otis Street near the Fountainhead Apartments. Wild turkeys need forests with open areas. Trees give them protection, places to roost at night, and food such as acorns, hickory nuts, and maple seeds.
November 18, 2005, Page 12
By ANNIE REID
Westborough Community Land Trust
It's time to talk turkey
It's turkey time, not only this month but every month in Westborough's woods, thanks to efforts over the past 35 years to bring back native wild turkeys to Massachusetts.
The wild turkey that you might see running across the trail ahead of you, and the group of wild turkeys that you might spot feeding by the roadside, are sights that you could not have enjoyed back in 1970.
Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are native to North America. They had long been hunted by Native Americans in Massachusetts when Europeans arrived on its shores in the 1620s. As settlers cut hardword forests to make way for farming, the wild turkeys' habitat shrank dramatically. By 1851 wild turkeys had disappeared from Massachusetts.
More than half a dozen attempts to reintroduce wild turkeys to Massachusetts failed in the early and mid-1900s. Forests grew back as agriculture declined, once again providing a place for turkeys to live, so what was wrong? As it turned out, the game-farm turkeys that were released into the woods had been raised in pens and were not able to survive in the wild.
Finally, in 1972-73, wild flocks of turkeys were captured in nets in New York and transported to western Massachusetts. These turkeys already knew how to survive in the wild, and they flourished in their new home. As their numbers grew, some of them were moved to other parts of the state. Today about 20,000 wild turkeys roam throughout most of Massachusetts.
Wild turkeys are active during the day and don't fly south for the winter, so you might see them as they feed on the ground, eating acorns, hickory nuts, seeds, and buds. They usually get around by running and can go up to 25 miles per hour. They also fly and can reach speeds of 55 miles per hour.
In popular culture, turkeys have the reputation of being stupid. Our native wild turkeys deserve far more credit for their smarts. They lead complex social lives within the "pecking order" or dominance hierarchy of a flock, where they need to recognize and remember a large number of different individuals and behave accordingly. They also communicate using at least 28 different calls.
For young turkeys, life in a flock begins within 24 hours of hatching. The young start off with downy feathers and eyes open and can feed themselves right away. They immediately bond with the mother hen by "imprinting" on her. They quickly learn to follow her and respond to her calls, forming a family flock. The mother leads them to grassy areas to catch insects, a good source of protein for growth.
If a hawk passes overhead, a particular alarm call from the mother prompts the young to flatten themselves against the ground and remain motionless until they hear her all-clear call.
Even so, more than half of young turkeys don't survive their first two weeks. They fall victim to predators or cold drenching spring rains. Their odds of survival improve after about two weeks, once they can fly up into the trees to escape danger and to roost for the night.
Young males stay with the mother, learning the art of survival, until the fall. Young females stay even longer, until the next spring's breeding season. In the summer and fall, family flocks may join together, making larger flocks.
Turkey courtship begins in late February and lasts through early May. The males "gobble", calling the females to them, and fan their tails and strut to show off. Males are large, between 16 and 25 pounds, with iridescent dark feathers, fleshy wattle around their heads and necks, feather-like "beards" on their chests, and sharp spurs on their heels for fighting. Their appearance presumably impresses females and intimidates potential rival males. Males mate with several different hens and have no role in nesting or raising the young.
Females usually weigh only half to three-quarters as much as males and have dull colors, which camouflage them during nesting. They typically lay 10-12 tan eggs in a shallow hollow that they scrape in the ground in a brushy area that offers good cover. The young hatch by the first week in June.
Besides gobbles and alarm calls, turkeys have many other calls. They may cluck to get another turkey's attention, make a purring sound when content, cackle when taking flight, and give muffled yelps to communicate with others while roosting in trees. Hens have certain calls to respond to males and to assemble their flocks of young. Young turkeys who are lost give a special call. Some calls communicate a turkey's sex, age, or dominance status, and others may intimidate predators.
The story of the wild turkey's decline and restoration in Massachusetts has been repeated in many other states. Today populations of wild turkeys are robust enough to support carefully controlled hunting in 49 states. Massachusetts allows turkey hunting, by permit only, in many locations. The turkey-hunting seasons include a one-week fall season (now past) and a two- to four-week spring season.