By Roxanne Lee
Wild turkeys have become a common sight in Boston this fall, as well as in other cities and suburbs across the country. The large birds wander the streets of Massachusetts, both alone and in small flocks.
In the late 19th century, wild turkeys were eliminated in Massachusetts due to habitat destruction and overhunting, with the last wild turkey in the state dying in 1851. A combination of the reintroduction of wild turkey in the 1970s from population capture in New York, in-state transplantation of birds that continued until 1996, and birds moving in from other adjacent states has brought populations back up until they’ve become a common sight once more.
Turkeys are generalists that can survive in a wide variety of ecosystems. They eat a diet of vegetation and insects and adapt fairly well to different environments, whether rural, urban, or suburban.
Unfortunately, their presence has hindered many Boston residents in their daily lives. They’ve made trouble by attacking reflections of themselves, which they see as rival turkeys, blocking roads and disrupting traffic when crossing the street, and on occasion harassing and attacking people.
Turkeys’ aggression towards humans stems at least in part from the social nature of turkeys. Male turkeys will show aggression to gain social status, and can sometimes view humans as social competitors. Boston city officials received 60 complaints last year about the wild birds.
Wildlife experts attribute some of the clashes to residents leaving out food for wild turkeys. Rather than an act of kindness, leaving out food for wild animals leads to problems, as it acclimates animals to human presences and makes them associate humans with food. This can lead to animals chasing and harassing people in order to get food.
MassWildlife has offered advice on how to deal with belligerent turkeys. For example, shiny objects like car windows should be covered, as turkeys respond aggressively to them. People are encouraged to stand up to aggressive turkeys by making lots of noise or swatting them with a broom.
The question of how we will live with wild turkeys and how they will be handled in the future can be seen as a piece of the larger puzzle of what happens when formerly endangered animals are successfully reintroduced.
Turkeys have returned, which is good, but their presence in ever-expanding human spaces presents new problems. If their population continues to increase, greater measures than an occasional call to the police or animal control will likely be needed. For now, at least, we can look forward to seeing our new neighbors around more often.