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Turkey Tales: A Thanksgiving Leftover

A few decades ago, the state stocked itself with turkeys like a grocer before Thanksgiving.

Wild turkeys started showing up in fields and conservation lands about 20 years ago.  

They’ve multiplied, which is what Massachusetts wildlife experts wanted. Now, there are so many I’ve stopped taking pictures. Flocks of our feathered friends stop traffic as they slowly cross streets or just mingle and trade gossip in the middle of the road.

Some traipse through my backyard and navigate neighborhoods in Lexington, Bedford, Burlington, Belmont and everywhere other wooded city or town.

These are not Thanksgiving turkeys, and I’m sure if they knew what we were celebrating they’d be the ones who were thankful.

The sleek, long-necked birds have a purpose and were reintroduced into the state by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game.

DFG’s Outreach Coordinator Marion Larson and Wildlife Biologist David Scarpitti pointed me to the turkey portion of the website and Scarpitti, from the Westboro field office, gave me a few pieces of information.  

Hundreds of years ago, back when we wore colonial clothing and carried muskets, wild turkeys were abundant in Massachusetts. The DFG tells us they were sunning themselves on the Cape and thinking about Birkenstocks in the Berkshires.

We began settling and building houses, which means we decimated the forests. I suspect we used our muskets on our feathered friends too. The population began shrinking and according to the site, “By the early 1800s turkeys were rare in the state.

“The last known native bird was killed on Mt. Tom in 1851,” the website states.

Now, how does anyone know this? Perhaps the turkey left a message, perhaps none were seen after his or her demise.

I asked Scarpetti.

“Turkeys had gotten so rare at that point any place they were seen was noteworthy,” he said. “When that last turkey was shot there weren’t any other reports or observations of turkeys.”

However, even he isn’t certain if it was the last turkey.

“Maybe there was one hiding in some deep dark place, that’s certainly possible,” he said.  

I suspected the “Tom Turkey” moniker is homage to that fateful death.

Scarpetti thinks that might be a stretch on my part – but he isn’t sure. “Male turkeys are known as Toms, but that’s speculation on my part,” he said.

Fast forward past the Civil War, abandoned farms, changing scenery and a sudden “aha” moment that trees are our friends and once again Massachusetts became the perfect environment for these wild birds.

Unfortunately, trying to undo distinction is pretty difficult.

Mass Wildlife tried reintroducing game farm turkeys into the landscape. From 1914 to 1947 they made four unsuccessful attempts.

They looked at the success of other states and, in 1960, tried that last unsuccessful attempt. Twenty-two turkeys were introduced to the Quabbin Reservation area.

They started having families, but once again, the population declined leaving only a few turkeys for fend for themselves. Clearly, game farm turkeys weren’t equipped for life without human help.

Apparently wild turkeys have better survival skills, which is what the experts decided, and, in 1972, released only the wild version, which Scarpetti said, "were trapped from New York state."

These wild birds can fly up to 40 feet and roost in trees during the night to protect themselves from predators, which certainly helped the survival rate.

With those skills the population now is somewhere in the 40,000 range Scarpetti said, which means they are doing well. Walk through Lexington or Bedford or take a drive through Belmont and you’ll see just how well.   

Scarpetti unnerved me when he said controlled hunting is seasonally allowed – but only in controlled areas with a permit.  

“Eight years following the initial wild bird reintroduction, we instituted a very small scale limited hunt for wild turkeys,” Scarpetti said. “We gave out 50 permits at that time.”

Unfortunately, here are the gory details. “Typically shot gun is the primary means of shooting turkey.”

Yup, that and bows and arrows.

I felt better after Scarpetti explained, “It was limited to a certain part of the state where they abundant enough to allow for the harvest.”

We do not – I repeat – do not have permission to hurt these birds. Some are so accustomed to humans they just glance over and keep eating or walking.

Remember, “Wild turkeys – and all wildlife are protected by various entities, including Mass WildLife,” Scarpetti said.

So, enjoy that fresh farmed bird and forget about your friends in the backyard. They probably don’t like cranberries anyway.

And, for heaven’s sake, don’t feed your leftovers to them.

Holly Pearson November 27, 2011 at 12:52 AM
Poor turkeys. Most of the ones eaten on Thanksgiving are raised on factory farms where they are genetically engineered to grow giant breasts because that's the meat most people prefer. By slaughter time they are virtually crippled because their legs can barely support their own bodies. No much to be thankful for. Wild turkeys - their story is also pretty grim. Slaughtered to near extinction, they were eventually breed to be"reintroduced". Now their numbers are so great that one might see them trying to cross a road in Cambridge or roosting in trees in Waltham... The Division of Fisheries and "Game" (nowadays called "Wildlife") got what they wanted - an overpopulation of turkeys that must be "harvested" (killed). Turkeys are curious, bright creatures with distinct personalities - as depicted on a recent PBS documentary "I am a Turkey". And when millions get slaughtered for Thanksgiving every year all we can do is make jokes about it.

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