Yes, All Cape Cod's Wild Turkeys Descend from Just 28 Birds from New York

Nov 30, 2017

One of my younger daughter’s first words was “turkey.” We see the wild birds everywhere on the Outer Cape: in the woods near her daycare, along Route 6, out in our backyard. And we all know the Thanksgiving story—nearly four hundred years ago, wild turkeys fed the Pilgrims and Native Americans in Plymouth for their three day feast.

But for a while, wild turkeys were geographically extinct in Massachusetts. I talked with Cape Cod National Seashore Wildlife Ecologist Bob Cook to find out what happened and how they made such an impressive comeback.

“What happened with the wild turkey is similar, in some ways, to what happened to a lot of different species of wildlife here in the Northeast during the period of colonial settlement and agricultural expansion,” Cook told me. “A combination of conversion of the habitat from forests to open agricultural land, in conjunction with unregulated hunting.”

Turkeys live in the woods. There they eat a lot of acorns and the buds from evergreen plants, which means as forests were cleared for farmland, turkeys lost places to hide and their food. People hunted them with guns, but also in even simpler ways.

“They were also just trapping them into pens,” Cook said. “You can basically build weirs. The same principles that are used to trap fish can be used to trap birds: lead them into a funnel trap.”

The last wild turkey was killed in Massachusetts in 1851, and turkeys stayed extinct here until the mid 1970s. State officials started trying to bring them back as early as 1911, but they were using game farm and domesticated turkeys, and these birds didn’t survive in the wild.

“So what happened,” Cook explained, “is that apparently there were still some remnant populations of true wild turkeys that could be found in the more remote sections of New York state. Those animals were used in other parts of New York state, and once New York state had become successful in restoring their populations of wild turkeys they allowed turkeys from New York state to be transplanted to some of the neighboring states. Here on Cape Cod, 28 wild turkeys were transplanted to Wellfleet and that’s essentially the basis of all the wild turkeys we have here on the Outer Cape.”

Twenty eight turkeys. That was in 1995. Since then those 5 toms and 23 hens have turned into a multitude. Bob says it’s hard to know exactly how many wild turkeys we have today, but state officials are able to monitor the population’s ups and downs.

Several years ago I spoke with somebody from the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife about how they monitor the turkey population. One of the things they mentioned was how many calls about nuisance turkeys they receive as an index of the size of the turkey population out here.

A quick Google search indicates the turkeys are doing just fine: there’s a video of turkeys repeatedly attacking a Falmouth mailman and multiple newspaper articles in the past few years about turkey disturbances. Our area started allowing turkey hunting in 2010. There’s now a local hunting season on the Cape for turkeys in both the spring and the fall.