Home to roost; Protection boosts turkey numbers.
In 1961, you could drive from Provincetown to Plymouth to Pittsfield and never cross paths with a wild turkey.
But then, wild turkeys had not graced a Thanksgiving dinner table here in nearly a century.
Today, the game bird so admired by Benjamin Franklin is found throughout the commonwealth, with the exception of Nantucket.
The state population is estimated at 25,000, and wildlife biologist James E. Cardoza draws satisfaction from having played a key role in the turkey's restoration.
The 39-year veteran of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife said while the bald eagle and peregrine falcon restoration programs may be more high profile, the turkey's steady comeback garners his vote for being the agency's most successful restoration program among similar programs throughout the Northeast.
From his office on the second floor of the division's red brick field headquarters building in Westboro, Mr. Cardoza talked turkey with the ease of someone who has been closely involved with the bird's success at each step along the way.
"Just about all of the Northeast states were involved in restoring wild turkey populations in the late 1960s and early 1970s," said Robert Eriksen, regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Recounting the game bird's history, Mr. Eriksen said wild turkeys disappeared from
New England, New York, New Jersey and Delaware around the mid-1800s as a result of land-use changes that included wholesale cutting of the region's forests.
"You have to remember, also, there were no hunting regulations back then, either, and remnant turkey populations were decimated by market hunting as well as subsistence hunting by those who hunted turkey and deer simply to put food on the table," Mr. Eriksen said.
The remnant populations found in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia increased through the early 1900s and into the middle of the 20th century.
"As the forests grew, so did the turkey populations, expanding into new habitat, eventually reaching into southwestern New York. That set the stage for turkey restoration programs throughout the New England states," he said.
"If I were to single out one thing that speaks to the success of turkey restoration programs, it would be the conservation and protection of turkey habitat made possible by the regrowth of the forest," Mr. Eriksen said.
The second development that helped not only wild turkey restoration, but wildlife in general, was the establishment of state game commissions, fisheries and wildlife agencies that provided an element of protection with regulations governing hunting.
The third factor Mr. Eriksen identified was agriculture.
The establishment of farms amid forests created a diversity of habitat for nesting and rearing of young birds better than that of the 1600s.
In pre-Colonial days, there were probably 10 million to 12 million wild turkeys in the country. Today, there are probably close to 7.5 million wild turkeys and a good number of them are in the Northeast - a testament to the management by the state wildlife agencies and the conservation of habitat, Mr. Eriksen said.
He cited the Massachusetts turkey restoration project as one that was "well-planned and well-executed and the results speak volumes about Jim Cardoza and other wildlife biologists responsible for the program."
The architect of the state's turkey program said he's seen only two turkeys since June, but Thomas H. Berube of Barre, longtime sportsman and former executive director of the Massachusetts Sportsmen's Council, said
he counted upward of 200 wild turkeys one day recently.
On that day, Mr. Berube said, he drove about 100 miles through five or six communities while making the rounds of his wholesale hardware business and found many birds picking over cut cornfields.
The Massachusetts wild turkey restoration project had its origin over an 18-month period in 1972 and 1973, said Mr. Cardoza, when 37 wild turkeys were relocated from southwestern New York.
"For 10 or 11 years before that, attempts were made to introduce birds of mixed ancestry into the Quabbin Reservation. There was a combination of wild birds from West Virginia and mostly pen-raised birds from Pennsylvania. The birds survived, but they didn't do well. If there were 75 turkeys in Quabbin at the end of 1962, there were probably no more than that a decade later," he said.
"The birds from New York state that were released in the Berkshires fared much better and did remarkably well, given that they were released over an extended period of time," the biologist added.
By 1980, the turkeys had spread throughout Berkshire County, where there was appropriate habitat, and there were enough turkeys to warrant a spring turkey hunting season in two counties, Mr. Cardoza said.
About the same time, state wildlife biologists began live-trapping turkeys and releasing them in appropriate habitat across the state, a practice that continued through the mid-1990s with the relocation of 561 birds.
"No doubt we trapped more birds than that during that 15-year period, but if we had more male birds than we needed, we simply banded and released them," he said.
"We didn't put wild birds on Martha's Vineyard because there were already turkeys of mixed ancestry on the island that were quite tame. No birds were released on Nantucket because the habitat wasn't conducive," he said.
Mr. Cardoza said ideal wild turkey habitat provides both food and shelter.
In the Bay State, that means mature or semimature forest mixed with open agricultural land or pasture that provides a ready supply of food, a place to roost, and shelter for a nest that offers some protection from predators.
"Turkeys typically look for a nesting site at the edge of an old field, up against a stump or a rock. They might nest beneath a pile of logging slash simply because of the extra level of protection it offers against predators," Mr. Cardoza said.
When the young hatch, the nest must be near a source of food.
"The poults will find their way out to an open field or savannah where they can look for insects. For that first growth spurt, their diet is primarily protein," he said.
As the birds mature, they will eat fruits, nuts, berries, seeds, fern fiddle heads - pretty much any plant material, he said.
Mr. Cardoza said in Massachusetts, most turkeys hatch the first week of June after a 27- or 28-day incubation period. Some are killed by predators, while others fall victim to adverse weather. The young that survive will stay with the hen until the fall, he said.
"And typically at that point hens and their young will band together into larger groups. Sometimes the young males will split off and form bachelor groups of young male birds, whereas the adult males will form their own groups."
The male birds, the biologist said, typically will not associate with the hens unless it's mating season.
Sometimes during the winter, especially if there is snow on the ground, groups will form with as many as 100 to 150 birds, but the size of those groups will vary from day-to-day based on food supply.
Turkeys begin thinking about mating in March, but get serious about it in April when the toms start their display and the adult birds exhibit their dominance over the immature birds. The peak of mating activity is the end of April, but continues into May. First-year males are capable of mating, but may not have the opportunity because of dominant males, Mr. Cardoza said.
"When we were relocating birds to new habitat, if all we had available were first-year males, they would be physiologically capable of mating. That doesn't mean they're always successful," he said.
After the mating period, the hen goes to the nest, but some males may look for another hen with which to mate, which is why there are sometimes two periods of gobbling.
While the average lifespan of a turkey is about three years, some birds live 12, 13 or even 15 years.
"A 15-year-old turkey would be the equivalent of a 120-year-old human, a one-in-a-million occurrence," Mr. Cardoza said.
Sometimes hunters will come across a 5- or 6-year-old bird, but even that's not common, he said.
Mr. Eriksen said the National Wild Turkey Federation, with more than a half-million members, has raised money to provide capture and telemetry equipment to wildlife managers who track and study turkey populations. He said the organization also provides money to improve turkey habitat on public land.
Contact Bradford L. Miner by e-mail at email@example.com.
ART: PHOTOS; CHART
CUTLINE: (1) Turkeys roost on a fence along Crescent Street in West Boylston. (2) Wild turkeys forage in a backyard in the Vista Lane area of Southbridge. (3) Wildlife biologist James E. Cardoza (CHART) Talkin' wild turkey
PHOTOG: (1) T&G Staff/CHRIS CHRISTO (2) T&G Staff/LEN LAZURE (CHART) T&G Staff/VILAYPHET KRUOCH