Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Turkeys Are A Thanksgiving Tradition
November 21, 2020
by Steve Grinley
This Thanksgiving will be different for most of us. We hope that you will stay safe and still be able to enjoy your turkey dinner with loved ones. Speaking of turkeys, I thought that I would share with you again some history of turkeys in Massachusetts.
It is not unusual anymore to be feasting on turkey at the dinner table only to look out the window and see some of its cousins, wild turkeys, waltzing through your yard. Wild turkeys have become common in Essex County after more than a century of absence.
Back around the first Thanksgiving, wild turkeys were plentiful, so plentiful in fact that they were a staple part of the early settlers diet and became the traditional Thanksgiving meal. They were so plentiful that Ben Franklin wanted to make the turkey the national symbol rather than the bald eagle!
But despite the abundance of wild turkeys on that first Thanksgiving, it took a little more than two centuries of hunting to eradicate all turkeys from Massachusetts, and from other parts of New England. By the mid 1800’s, no breeding wild turkeys remained in Massachusetts.
It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that wild turkeys from a Pennsylvania population were reintroduced into western Massachusetts around the Quabbin Reservoir area. This group of birds survived and multiplied. I can remember having to go out to the Quabbin area to see wild turkeys when I first started birding. They were hard to find and I can recall only catching brief glimpses of my first turkeys. Small bands of turkeys foraged through the thick woodlands. They would continually scurry just out of eyesight, sometimes taking flight for a short distance when I could spot their rusty-tipped tail.
So successful was the western Massachusetts population that turkey hunting started there again in 1982. While hunting began in western part of the state, wild turkeys were stocked in some of the state forests of Essex and northern Middlesex Counties. From all the reports we now receive of turkeys, it is apparent that they have adapted well to our area. They are commonly seen throughout all area towns and, sometimes, right in downtown Newburyport!
Some of our wild turkeys seem anything but wild. Some years ago, one of our customers in Byfield had an adult with 11 young show up in her yard. She had turkeys at her feeders and bird baths for several years. If the feeders were low, they let her know by tapping on her window with their beaks. My friend Harry, who lived right on Route 1 in Newbury, had to shoo turkeys out of the way sometimes just to get his truck out of his driveway.
On one of my bird walks, I stopped to view a pair of turkeys feeding below feeders in a front yard. As I got out of the car in an attempt to notify the caravan of cars that were following me, the turkeys followed me up the row of cars! The turkeys even chased the caravan as we proceeded on our way.
Turkeys roost high in trees – usually evergreens. I sometimes heard them “gobbling” to each other at dusk as they gathered in the trees behind my home. In the mornings, I would see them glide in from the trees, landing on the grass to feed. It is sometimes startling to see these large birds fly! I can remember walking down a path at Maudslay State Park early one morning when this large object came hurling out of the tree above me. I was startled by a turkey leaving its nighttime roost!
Our local turkeys have done so well that they are now hunted in Essex County again. Wild turkeys breed early in spring with eggs hatching in April. Hunting occurs for a few weeks in May. While our beloved black-capped chickadee is the Massachusetts State Bird, the official Massachusetts State Game Bird is now the wild turkey. This is either further testament of the turkeys’ success in Massachusetts, or confirmation of the number of relatives they have in the State House that voted for them. Happy Thanksgiving!