Many years ago, the only experience most people in Dorchester and Mattapan had with turkeys was on the last Thursday of November, and those specimens usually came frozen and ready for the oven.
While the gobblers had disappeared as everyday wanderers across Massachusetts for more than 100 years until about 1970, a long repatriation effort by state wildlife experts over the past 50 years has resulted in our having almost as many wild turkeys roaming the streets as there will be on dinner tables this week.
“My wife has a garden and night and day they go in there,” said Earl Faulk, who lives near the Mattahunt Woods in Mattapan and is bordered by wildlife on three sides. “We put a small fence around the garden. What I didn’t know was that these turkeys fly. They come out of the graveyard and strut up and down the street and fly into my wife’s garden…They just have a field day here…We’ve had 20 turkeys rolling through my backyard at times.”
Faulk’s experiences are by no means rare as legions of turkeys have marked their territory throughout Dorchester and Mattapan, and while they generally wander aimlessly about without problems, they can be found tying up traffic or occupying a backyard, or, in rare cases, sending unprepared humans running for their lives.
“The population is expanding,” said Daniel Gillis, a supervisor at Boston Animal Control. “I would say they have doubled here since 2017. We have a lot more and we got a lot more calls – especially in particular areas. The Gallivan Boulevard area will call from over by Pope John Paul Park a lot, as well as the Dorchester Park area. The banks over there will call and report they are pecking at car doors. People get aggravated with them… There are hundreds around the Arboretum in JP, but there are more in Dorchester than anywhere, I think.”
Gillis said that most are trying to get from one place to another – but there are occasions when they become aggressive. Still, he warned, Animal Control cannot relocate them due to federal laws, and state law levies a felony offense against anyone purposely hurting wildlife – so don’t go clobbering them with a broom, he noted.
“Also, never feed a turkey,” he added. It encourages them to stick around and they will get bolder and will begin to think they are the dominant one,” he said, adding that “they can fly up to 55 mph and they can run about 25 mph. I had to chase and catch one and he ran a good 200 yards before I could get at him.”
For all that, the turkey story in Massachusetts overall is one to celebrate in terms of environmental victories. Like the successful resurgence of the Bald Eagle, the turkey is a victor over extinction. Wayne Petersen, the director of the Important Bird Areas program at Mass Audubon, said having turkeys back is an impressive feat. He said there were many efforts begun as far back as the 1950s, but the birds brought in from other states couldn’t withstand the cold winters and didn’t survive.
“It wasn’t until the 1970s, when they found stock from the Adirondacks and upstate New York that were winter hardy, that the effort became successful,” he said. “Once they got a toehold, they just took off and spread. Now they are everywhere, from Massachusetts Bay to Mt. Greylock.”
Petersen said wild turkeys were very common in Massachusetts in Colonial times and up to the Civil War, with the last of them being hunted down in 1851. He said a changing landscape and pressures from hunting phased them out.
As to 2022, he said, “The fact they are living in Dorchester and Mattapan and doing very well shows how adaptable they have become in what is not the typical wild turkey habitat. They were gone a long time…They have now become a big part of the environment. They have a real presence and in most cases, they aren’t a problem…They have really taken to the city and the suburbs for a variety of reasons.”
Two reasons in particular, he said, are that people often feed them, though they should never do that, and that they aren’t hunted in the cities and suburbs. Easy food and no hunters have created a “turkey-friendly situation,” he noted.
“In the cities they have figured out that it’s a gravy train.”
Yet the fact remains that wild turkeys are surprisingly interesting animals, both Petersen and neighbors in Dorchester and Mattapan said.
Paul Losordo of Melville Park in Dorchester said he and his wife, Dominique Chouteau, liked the turkeys at first, but in recent years the numbers have grown to the point of overload. “My wife loves the turkeys, well, she did when they first appeared six or so years ago, 3 birds at first,” he said. “Then there were 6 or 7, suddenly 11, then 14, in multiple flocks. They roosted in the tree branches above our deck one winter, and 14 turkeys make a lot of mess.”
The gobblers become such a part of the neighborhood that Chouteau, an artist, features them in an Instagram comic strip she draws called, ‘The Melville Park Chronicles.’ In the strip, Gertrude the turkey has numerous cameos, including a witty piece where the neighborhood turkeys masquerade as ‘Thanksgiving Bunnies’ in late November.
“The Chronicles starts out with turkeys, continues with turkeys, and has a lot of turkeys drawn in them,” Losordo said.
John Amodeo, also of Melville Park, said he has watched the birds with great interest over the years, but he was the victim of a wild turkey chase. He said he had his lawn overseeded one fall, only to find 10 to 12 turkeys outside the next day feasting on their windfall. “They were completely wiping out the new seed crop my lawn service put down the day before,” he said. “I tried to chase them off my lawn, but the roles were quickly reversed as they chased me off my own lawn. I never imagined the perils of city living would include wild turkeys.”
Earl Faulk said that just like everything else, they’re just trying to find their place in the world.
Domenic Accetta, of Melville Park, noted that turkeys in the street aren’t much different than human pedestrians. “In many ways they remind me of Dorchester pedestrians,” he said. “They don’t pay any attention to lights and walk into the street like they own it. So, I guess it’s the perfect bird for the city.”