Metro, Newton

Bates Discusses History of Turkeys in New England at Newton Conservators Webinar

Turkey enthusiast and naturalist teacher Barbara Bates explored the habits and natural cultural history of turkeys in New England in a webinar hosted by Newton Conservators on Thursday.

Bates, a former naturalist teacher for Mass Audubon’s Habitat Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary, serves on the board of Newton Conservators as a presenter.  She said she started reading about the animals after one attacked her in the Newton Cemetery.

“He was going to peck me, and I grabbed out my stick, and I crouched down, and I tried to fend him off like a fencer, and he kept on darting his head in between this stick—and this was a substantial stick—and it finally ended up whacking him on the side of the head,” Bates said. 

According to Bates, she does not see the animals anymore. She said the cemetery used herding dogs to get rid of the violent turkeys, forcing them to relocate.

“I suspect that they’re on West Newton Hill, and they’re congregating there because they’re really good oak trees and lots of acorns and lots of good roosting spaces,” Bates said. “So that’s prime habitat is prime real estate so you got two million dollar houses up there, but as far as the turkeys are concerned you got million dollar trees up there too.”

Beyond attacking innocent bystanders, Bates said New England’s turkey history dates way back to the pilgrim times. In the 1500s, they used to be far more commonly seen before they were popularized by European trade, according to Bates. 

“Because everybody hunted them, and they were so easy to hunt because of their relative numbers, by 1672 there were virtually no turkeys,” Bates said. “It was really hard to meet them. Very rare in fact, and by 1851 there were no turkeys at all in Massachusetts.”

According to Bates, turkey hunters eventually decided to work toward renewing the turkey population, especially in New England.

“They passed the Pittman Robertson [Wildlife Restoration] Act in 1937,” Bates said. “That authorized all sorts of money to restore wild turkeys. This restoration wasn’t particularly easy … But their efforts were so successful that by 1937, you had almost 1.3 million turkeys in the area.”

Turkey populations seem to be falling again—this time at an exponential rate, according to Bates.

“Now the population has also declined,” Bates said. “I used to have turkeys every year in my backyard. I haven’t seen a single turkey this year in my backyard.”

She said the turkey population has dropped “some 18 percent” between 2014 and 2018, according to estimates from the National Wild Turkey Federation.

“We have only about six and a half million birds in the U.S., that’s the estimate right now,” Bates said. “So it’s dropped quite a bit, and the culprit seems to be climate change.”

According to Bates, climate change and habitat loss are affecting the turkey population in major ways. She said the young turkeys are not getting the food or daylight they need to continue to breed.

“What can be done to help turkeys?” Bates said. “Habitat restoration, I think, is the primary one. And whatever you can do to stop global warming and climate change.”

November 12, 2023