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For those lucky enough to witness it, the mating display of the male wild turkey is one of the avian world’s great spectacles: the fan of black tail feathers edged in white, the bright-red head, an iridescent bronze sheen on the beetle-black body, and two pumped-up patches on the chest.
And, at 16 to 24 pounds, the tom is not all fluff. Add some attitudinal strut and a piercing gobble, and you’ve got one irresistible critter – at least, that’s what he’s hoping.
With upwards of 20,000 wild turkeys now roaming the Commonwealth, even the nerdiest male specimen of Meleagris gallopavo should have no problem finding a mate. This abundant flock has exploded in numbers from a mere 37 birds transplanted from New York State 35 years ago. The destruction of forests erased or fragmented most of their habitat between the time of colonial settlement and the 1850s, and the native birds vanished from the state. After failed attempts to reintroduce them during the first half of the 20th century, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) officials finally succeeded in the early 1970s, releasing the captured turkeys in the Berkshires. Now it’s possible to observe them in nearly all parts of the state.
“At Doyle Conservation Center, they come right across the parking lot almost every day,” says the Trustees ecology program manager Russ Hopping, who works at the Leominster campus. Hopping explains that the turkey’s impressive rebound results from several factors, including the presence of the diverse landscape features that turkeys require. “We have many areas with a combination of fields, forests, and wetlands, and that’s what they like,” he notes.
And that diversity of environments supports the kind of varied menu that the birds enjoy: skunk cabbage in swamps, hickory nuts and acorns in hardwood forests, and berries at the edges of fields and woods. Turkeys even dig tubers out of the ground. The young, called poults, feast on insects, a high-energy bug diet they adopt quickly and easily since their mothers (“hens”) are ground-nesters. The turkey nurseries are situated in dense cover, thus providing the young greater chances of survival.
Because turkeys now roam the landscape in such numbers, people are seeing them more frequently than at any time in the past few centuries. And although almost all of the time this will be an enjoyable experience, wildlife officials caution that whenever people and wild animals have contact, the potential for conflict exists.
Jim Cardoza, a wildlife biologist at MassWildlife who participated in the successful reintroduction of turkeys, says that problems almost always start with people feeding them. Nevertheless, very few people will ever interact with a turkey, unlike Cardoza, who had numerous up-close-and-personal contacts, especially during the capture-and-transfer program.
There were two problems in the project to restore turkeys to the wild, he recalls three decades later. “First, could we capture enough birds to re-introduce, and second, would the turkeys take to Massachusetts conditions.”
The crucial tool was a specially equipped rocket, which was launched over a field baited to attract the turkeys, and from which a net would descend to cover the birds. Wild turkeys were also key to their eventual success, Cardoza explains. “They had used pen-raised birds partly or entirely, and that just didn’t work. Success came with the wild trapped birds.”
Once back in Massachusetts, it was just a question of how extensive their dispersal might be. As the re-located birds spread across the southern Berkshires, they were joined by wild turkeys flying in from New York and Vermont. “But those 37 birds were the nucleus,” Cardoza emphasizes. “Then we started to trap (in-state) birds and move them around the state.”
In the intervening decades, turkeys have done what birds and bees do. And when it comes to attraction, it turns out all the frilly, feathery displays, the posturing, and bluster are secondary to the snood: that not terribly attractive appendage that flops over a male’s beak. Research indicates that the size of a tom’s snood – which can stretch to twice its size during courtship – often determines if a female will be receptive, or if one tom will challenge another for dominance.
So unless you can get beyond the display of color and dancing to see a preening tom’s snood, it’s hard to predict if he’ll get the girl, or just be all dressed up with nowhere to go.