Ask the Expert

Why are there so many wild turkeys in Massachusetts now?

Chris Whittier, V97, research assistant professor of conservation medicine at Cummings School, explains
A strutting tom turkey
“The best ways to avoid turkey conflicts start with recognizing that they are like other wildlife,” said Chris Whittier. Photo: Chris Whittier
November 20, 2018

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Along with the American bison, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of America’s great conservation success stories. Native to North America, and the same species as those we farm and eat for Thanksgiving, wild turkeys, like many other species, suffered population crashes when Europeans arrived in North America and started hunting and cutting down forests.

What had been perhaps 10 million turkeys ranging across the continent dropped to an estimated 30,000 birds in the 1930s, before hunting laws started. There were few, if any, wild turkeys left northeast of Pennsylvania at that time.

Combined with hunting restrictions, efforts also were made to capture and move wild turkeys from areas where they were abundant to those from which they had been wiped out in order to establish new flocks and re-expand their population. It wasn’t until the 1970s that MassWildlife reintroduced turkeys to western Massachusetts.

Such efforts were not easy, but resulted in wild turkey populations rebounding to a peak high of about 7 million birds across the U.S. around 2004. There are now estimated to be around 6 million wild turkeys living in North America, ranging from Canada to Mexico—but in some areas of the U.S., turkey population declines have become worrisome.

The overall revival of the species has been a boon for turkey hunters—and the state agencies that sell hunting permits—and anyone who appreciates seeing more wildlife, but it has not been without consequences. Human-turkey conflicts are on the rise, especially in the suburbs, and range from the birds damaging homes and gardens, to disrupting traffic, to aggressively attacking people, and sometimes even pets on rare occasions. Part of the problem is that urban and suburban turkey populations are not hunted, and the birds quickly lose their natural fear of humans.

The best ways to avoid turkey conflicts start with recognizing that they are like other wildlife. Turkeys should never be fed and, if you have a birdfeeder, you should keep the ground around that area very clean. Likewise, gardens should be protected so as not to habituate turkey to a food source. Be especially careful around turkeys in the spring when they are breeding and the males, or toms, can be especially bold and aggressive—and do not be afraid to deter them with loud noises, swinging sticks, or even leashed dogs. Turkeys also may attack their own reflections, so shiny objects and mirrors should be covered when turkeys are around. (Read more tips from MassWildlife on living with wild turkeys.)

We are lucky in Massachusetts to be able to see these colorful and impressive birds more and more often thanks to careful management. Hopefully, we will continue to co-exist without conflict, ensuring that future generations will never experience not seeing wild turkeys in Massachusetts.

Chris Whittier is director of the master’s program in conservation medicine at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

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