The wild turkey population in Berkshire County has experienced a remarkable revival, thanks in part to careful human intervention. Once on the verge of extinction in Massachusetts due to habitat loss, the last wild turkey in the state perished in 1851. However, in the early 1970s, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife reintroduced 37 birds into Beartown State Forest as part of a conservation effort. Since then, the agency has released turkeys into traps in different areas of the state to boost their numbers.
The restoration efforts have been successful, with the current estimated population of wild turkeys in Massachusetts ranging from 35,000 to 40,000 individuals. They can now be found in nearly every town and city, except for Nantucket. While the increase in wild turkeys may give the impression that they are thriving, experts emphasize the importance of human behavior in ensuring their continued success. They warn that humans, as well as natural predators, can pose significant threats to other animals and insects that play a vital role in supporting the turkey population.
In the past, hunters used to gather in Berkshire County for spring turkey hunting, but the abundance of birds in other areas has shifted the hunting locations. Currently, more turkeys are killed in Worcester County than in Berkshire County. The hunting seasons for turkeys coincide with deer seasons, with gun season running from October 16 to October 28 in the Berkshires. From October 30 to November 25, hunters are allowed to take turkeys during the bow hunting season. In eastern Massachusetts, turkey hunting opens on October 2.
While wild turkeys may appear harmless, they can become a nuisance in heavily populated areas when people become a problem. David Scarpitti, a wildlife biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, explains that there have been incidents of unfortunate encounters between turkeys and humans in areas where turkeys roam city streets. He advises against feeding turkeys, as they become vulnerable to relying on easy meals. Turkeys, like any wild animal, are driven by their need for food and reproduction.
Conserving habitat is another crucial factor in ensuring the continued success of wild turkeys. In Berkshire County, the wintering population of turkeys used to concentrate on dairy farms where they would feed on corn. However, with the decline in dairy farms, turkeys have begun to spread out to mature timber for feeding during the winter. Matt DiBona, a district biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation, emphasizes the importance of a diverse habitat mix that includes forests, fields, and woodlands. Protecting turkey habitat also benefits other forms of wildlife, such as the New England cottontail, and supports pollinators and other insects that turkeys rely on for food.
Wild turkeys have become an “umbrella species” in habitat management because their conservation efforts yield benefits for other species as well. DiBona uses harvest data as an index of turkey population, with the spring harvest of 2023 recording 3,082 male turkeys. Predators pose a significant threat to both turkeys and their nests, with coyotes, snakes, skunks, raccoons, owls, bobcats, and harriers being potential predators. The survival of turkey chicks is especially challenging during their first two weeks of life, as they are incredibly vulnerable and unable to fly. They face the risk of predation and are sensitive to detrimental weather conditions.
In conclusion, the comeback of wild turkeys in Berkshire County relies on a combination of responsible human behavior, habitat conservation, and protection from predators. By understanding and respecting the needs of these birds, humans can contribute to their ongoing success and ensure that they continue to thrive in the Massachusetts wilderness.