Turkeys bounce back, and spar with human neighbors

Turkeys bounce back, and spar with human neighbors

Not everyone is celebrating the return of the wild turkeys.

After being wiped out from New England in the 1800s, the birds have stormed back in what’s considered a major success story for wildlife restoration. But as they spread farther into urban areas, they’re increasingly clashing with residents who say they destroy gardens, damage cars, chase pets and attack people.

Complaints about troublesome turkeys have surged in Boston and its suburbs over the past three years, causing headaches for police and health officials called to handle problems, according to city and town records provided to The Associated Press. It’s a familiar dilemma for some other U.S. towns from coast to coast that have been overrun by turkeys in recent years.

In November and December 2015, a roving flock of wild turkeys in Meriden attracted attention from city residents. The six fowl were spotted on the east side of town crossing busy intersections and meandering near Broad and East Main streets.

“I’ve seen turkeys here and there before, but never this many at once,” Meriden resident Paul Scollan told the Record-Journal in 2015 after seeing the flock on East Main Street.

“Everyone was in a rush, it was one of the busiest Christmas shopping weekends of the year, and these guys couldn’t care less,” he said of the turkeys. Motorists were either frustrated or entertained by the delay, Scollan said. Some “were honking their horns and some people pulled over to take a picture.”

Wild turkeys were abundant in Connecticut when the first settlers arrived. Then, a combination of forest clearing and a series of severe winters eliminated the turkey from the state by the early 1800s.

In 1975, spurred by conservationists who wanted to bring the native species back, Connecticut received 22 turkeys from New York and released them in the northwest portion of the state, said Michael Gregonis, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“With those birds, the population grew and expanded to the point where we were trapping turkeys and bringing them to other parts of the state,” he said. To date, turkeys have been documented in all 169 cities and towns in the state.

Gregonis offered a couple reasons why the birds might frequent an otherwise busy, relatively urban area.

“It probably stems from somebody feeding them,” he said. The practice can become a problem, however.

“There’s no need to feed these birds, they do quite well for themselves without any supplemental feeding,” Gregonis said.

Boston city officials say they received at least 60 complaints last year, a threefold increase over the year before. Nearby Somerville, Belmont and Brookline have seen similar upticks, combining for a total of 137 turkey gripes since the start of last year.

“Several years ago it was more of an isolated situation here and there,” said David Scarpitti, the wild turkey and upland game biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “Now it’s starting to spread into communities all around Boston.”

Often the grievance is little more than a wayward turkey blocking traffic, but in at least five cases turkeys became so aggressive that police said they had to shoot them as a matter of public safety. Some area residents have suffered minor injuries from the birds, including a 72-year-old woman who told police she was bruised in August after a gang of turkeys scratched and pecked her during a walk.

Turkeys in the wild are far stronger and faster than the ones that land on Thanksgiving tables, experts say. Males in particular are driven to show physical aggression as a way to climb the social pecking order, and they sometimes view humans as potential competitors.

“Turkeys don’t really mean to harm people — it’s just tied to their social dynamics within the flock,” Scarpitti said. “They lose perspective that humans are humans and turkeys are turkeys. They just want to assert dominance over anything.”

Even the earliest Americans picked up on that characteristic, with Ben Franklin famously writing that the turkey is a “Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

In the town of Brookline, Tess Bundy has come to loathe the turkeys that roost behind her home and often come charging when she leaves. She called police in April after a big tom repeatedly launched itself at her and her infant daughter.

“They’re terrible. Every year they’re worse,” said Bundy, a history professor at Merrimack College. “I really do think that they’re a menace to the town.”

The complaints have sent some cities searching for answers, including in Cambridge, where the City Council says it’s working on a plan. Officials in Brookline issued new guidance for fowl encounters in August, telling residents to “step toward the turkey and act confidently.”

Wildlife experts say much of the problem can be blamed on residents who leave out food for turkeys, which entices flocks to settle in and helps them survive winters.

Towns with similar problems in New Jersey, Iowa and Oregon have banned turkey feeding in recent years, and Montana enacted a similar statewide ban in May. But the idea hasn’t spread to the Boston area, where some residents say they enjoy the return of native wildlife.

Not far from two sites where turkeys were shot by police, Brookline resident Suzette Abbott says she’s had no problems with the turkeys that roam her block.

“I don’t think they’re dangerous,” Abbott said. “In the spring they look pretty amazing when the males are displaying their colors. I think they’re quite beautiful if you actually look at their feathers.”


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