Why Are There So Many Wild Turkeys on The Loose in Massachusetts?
Once nearly extinct, the birds today are everywhere, strutting around town like they run the place—and not just on Thanksgiving. It’s time to talk…well, you know.
Here’s one more reason the rest of the country hates us: We’re pretty. More than that, we’re pretty in every season. In the summer, we have the ocean. Winter, the mountains. (Yes, Utah, they’re mountains.) In the spring, we’ve got spring stuff like green grass and vacating college students. And now, in November, we’re extra pretty because it’s Thanksgiving, and where else do you think you’d have a more Thanksgiving-y experience? Reno? Spokane? Stop being so wicked high.
If claiming ownership of a holiday is a thing, this is the holiday the rest of the country would be trading up to get. Everyone loves Thanksgiving because it involves not only football but also our real pastimes of overeating, bringing up old issues, and then taking a nap. I’m a vegan, and I love this time of year because no one wonders, “Why are you only eating sweet potatoes?”
Oh, and the turkeys. I might not eat them, but I’ve had them on my mind a lot, which makes sense since this is really their moment. It’s as though Thanksgiving is the Olympics, and they’re the swimmers—loved, followed, and admired for one week. Granted, we don’t eat our athletes to show our appreciation, but you get the gist.
Here’s the thing: I grew up around Boston and never thought about turkeys until 4 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of November. Now, it could be April, and they’re in my head. So a question: Are there seemingly more turkeys cutting across my driveway than ever before?
Why yes, yes there are.
There weren’t turkeys wandering about in the 1980s and 1990s. The same goes for the decades before, and for good reason. Habitat destruction made them extinct here. To rectify that, in the 1970s, state officials started a repopulation program with 37 turkeys from New York (too easy), introducing them into the Berkshires and Franklin County, the latter being home to Bernardston, Erving, and Shutesbury. (News to me, as well.)
Over time, the turkeys were trapped and transplanted around the state, slowly making their way east and finding each and every possible church parking lot. But you can’t have a program without proof, so in the ’90s, the state began an annual survey from June through August, asking residents to report turkeys’ whereabouts to get a sense of how the numbers were moving and the status of the poults. (Baby turkeys, before you ask, and you’re welcome for the soon-to-be-hottest starter for Wordle.)
So the state wants to know where turkeys are? I’ll save them time. They’re e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. Seriously, turn around. Look out your window. Look to your right. No? Look left. Nothing yet? Go get coffee. Drive to pick up your kids from school and be five minutes late. You’ll hit the parade.
Mission accomplished. Job well done, state.
We could bitch and moan, because, well, that’s our other pastime, and rarely do any of us see a turkey and say, “Exactly what my day was missing.” We could easily blame state officials, since it was their program. But why waste all the anger? Given that turkeys are our official state game bird, they probably should be as prevalent around here as a Dunkin’ Donuts.
It’s also not the state’s fault that they’re ambling through T-ball games with such chutzpah. Want to blame someone for that? Try your neighbor. Yeah, the one next door. Or the one on the other side. Or the one behind you with the bird feeder. There’s someone on your street who thinks that animals who live outside need help finding food, so they provide it for them, like, every day. Turkeys aren’t dumb. They’re like dogs and kids. Give them easy meals, and they’ll keep coming back and back and back and back. It fosters a certain attitude. “[They have] no reason to fear humans,” says David Scarpitti, a wildlife biologist with the Division of Fisheries
and Wildlife. “They’ve become lazy.”
Uh, become? Turkeys don’t scream out Type A. And that’s part of their problem. They don’t scream out a lot of qualities. I’ve read enough elementary school “Things About Me” sheets, and “Favorite Animal” has never been filled in with “turkey.” They don’t soar. They don’t make good stuffed animals. They’re not real lookers, with their wide bottoms and lots of underneck. It’s easy not to respect them, but, in truth, we don’t have much respect for any animal we can get at the deli. Our usual treatment for such creatures goes something like: Roast, fry, bake, broil, grill; slather with sauce, cover with condiments. After they make our tummies big, we say thank you by turning their names into playground taunts:
No whiff of a workhorse or noble steed in the bunch.
Should the turkey get a touch more respect? According to history, Ben Franklin wrote that he wanted the turkey, not the bald eagle, to be our national bird. Maybe not quite. William Fowler, distinguished history professor emeritus at Northeastern University, tells me that Franklin liked to kid, and it’s not so much that he was lobbying for the turkey as he was mocking a French society that had an eagle as its emblem.
Franklin did write that the eagle had bad moral character and didn’t make its living honestly, watching a fishing hawk do all the work and then swooping in to steal the catch.
Actually, that sounds almost too American.
In contrast, the turkey waddles around, blocks traffic, and squawks.
Well, why not the turkey? He might have been joking, but Franklin wasn’t wrong. He called it a bird of courage. Definitely American. He called it native to the country. So, American. He also called it a little vain. Ahem.
In any case, we in Massachusetts already knew the turkey was special, because we always know something before everyone else. It’s time for the country to follow suit, make the turkey official, and start redesigning our money.
Who’s with me?
Who’s with me?
Oh, right. No one.
No one wants the turkey as the national bird, even people who love turkeys. (And people do. There’s a National Wild Turkey Federation before you scoff.) The turkey may be all the things that Franklin wrote about, but ultimately, it’s a turkey, a bird that doesn’t inspire any sense of power, majesty, or, most especially, fear—something all good mascots must do. Franklin could reincarnate, lobby the Senate, convince them to kick out the eagle, and there is still no way the local bastion of higher ed would ever, ever…ever…become the Boston College Turkeys.
Ben Franklin could reincarnate, lobby the Senate, convince them to kick out the eagle as our national bird, and there is still no way the local bastion of higher ed would ever, ever…ever…become the Boston College turkeys.
So where does that leave us? The state has about 30,000 total turkeys—more than the population of Saugus. From that initial 37 birds, there’s been an almost 100,000 percent increase, a return any self-respecting economist would deem “completely sick.” If we were looking to thin out the population, we could pay back New York with a more-than-generous 20 percent cut of the flock.
Yet we won’t do that, nor should we. The turkeys are ours, and why would we wish New York on any animal, even a cat? What we need to do is to learn to live with our wildlife, just like Alaska does. Just like Maine does. Just like Florida does. And we’re as tough and smart as they are. (Actually, tougher and smarter, but this is no time to brag.)
We just need to shore up two specific areas. First, street crossings. As it stands, we allow turkeys to pass at their own pace, even admire them as they sashay across. Enough with this foolishness. It’s like giving them food. When we brake, they realize, “Oh, you’ll wait. Watch me make you wait every single day.” The answer is to, yes, keep going. Right at them. Don’t gun it. Just maintain slow, forward movement. Whatever you may believe, as Scarpitti says, turkeys don’t want to get hit.
I’m sure this approach sounds inhumane. The thought of a turkey being hurt, even killed, is too much, thinks the person who, in a couple of weeks, will have one splayed out on a platter, followed by turkey sandwiches the next day. (Remember, I’m a vegan. I’ve earned my haughtiness.) But this could be the next great state wildlife-management program. Forget the survey. It’s time for Project Get to the Side. Turkeys can be safe as they frolic in rolling fields and wooded lands, and we can go 57 miles per hour on the way to soccer practice. And seriously, why else does anyone own a Jeep in Sudbury if not to clear fowl off the roadway?
We also need to shore up the turkey’s image. When they walk by, we think, “Oh, them.” And the truth is everyone wants to create some spark, some sense of surprise upon entering a room—even turkeys. They need to feel the love. We need to feel our love for them and make them truly our bird. That can start in only one place. We need to bring them into our homes.
But not as they are. That would be crazily destructive to lamps and pottery. There needs to be some transformation—more than that, a reinvention—and since we love innovation around here, both having the latest and being able to show it off, we need to take a few of the strongest, fastest, smartest male turkeys and get them together with some poodles. Thus, Massachusetts will give the world another enduring gift: the toodle.
And yes, there eventually will be a mini.
First published in the print edition of the November 2023 issue with the headline, “Turkeys on the Loose!”