Vineyard legend has it that the Island's wild turkeys are descended from escapees from some long lost, domestic turkey farm. However, according to Gus Ben David, one of the Island's foremost bird experts, the truth lies well short of the legend.
Turkeys roaming around the Vineyard are not so much wild as feral, Mr. Ben David explained, which means they came from wild turkey stock raised on game farms. They lived in a semi-wild state and then became self-sustaining.
Mr. Ben David recalls that the late Craig Kingsbury, former shellfish constable, sheep farmer, and Tisbury selectman, had the first flock of the Vineyard's so-called wild turkeys living on his property on State Road in Tisbury in the late 1950s.
"When I first started work at Felix Neck in September of 1969, we had imported some wild turkeys from down south, and had a flock that stayed small," said Mr. Ben David, who served as director of the wildlife sanctuary for 36 years. "It was only about 15 birds at the most, and over the years, just through natural attrition, that flock just sort of self-eliminated."
Over time, other Islanders bought so-called wild turkeys from hatcheries out west and let them go free on their property, Mr. Ben David said. "There must be 15 different sources now on the Vineyard where wild turkeys originated from, so they're not just any one person's responsibility," he explained. "Just like people have bought quail in the spring and raised them, other people have done that with turkeys."
The plentiful turkey population now thriving on the Island sprang up over the last 30 years, Mr. Ben David said. "There aren't any original genetic wild turkeys that existed in pre-Colonial days left here in the Northeast," he said. "All the ones in Massachusetts have been reintroduced from other states."
In Colonial times, turkeys thrived in most of Massachusetts, although they were probably absent from Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the high mountain areas in the northwestern part of the state, according to the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game's (DFG) website at www.mass.gov.
By 1851 turkeys were gone in Massachusetts. Between 1911 and 1967, efforts were made in five counties to restore turkeys to the state, without success. In 1972-73, with the cooperation of New York state officials, MassWildlife personnel live-trapped 37 turkeys in southwestern New York and released them in Beartown State Forest in southern Berkshire County.
By 1976, the birds had established themselves and their restoration was declared a success two years later. Beginning in 1978, MassWildlife began live-trapping turkeys in the Berkshires and releasing them in other suitable habitats across the state, amounting to a total of 26 releases involving 561 turkeys in 10 counties. Now, turkeys are found all across the state, except in the immediate vicinity of Worcester and Springfield.
Jim Cardoza, leader of the Massachusetts Turkey Project, said the DFG did not release turkeys on the Vineyard but did put some on Naushon island to replace turkeys they provided the state. When the Massachusetts Audubon Society released some turkeys in the 1970's, Mr. Cardoza said he did visit the Vineyard and looked at the Island's turkey population. "They resemble wild turkeys quite closely," he said. "Ten percent are very strange looking birds."
Most domestic turkeys are white, which Mr. Cardoza said dispels the myth that the Island's wild turkeys were domestic runaways. However, many Vineyard wild turkeys sport brown, tan, white, and reddish-colored feathers.
"The turkeys we see on the Vineyard are not considered true wild turkeys by the state, because they've been integrated with different domestic turkey blood, resulting in what I call 'hybrids,'" said Mr. Ben David. The reddish and tan colors, for example, come from a domestic variety called the "Bourbon Red."
Vineyarders tend to have a love/hate relationship with the wild turkeys, Mr. Ben David said. "People always call and say, jeez, Gus, how do I get rid of them? How do I get them out of my yard? I don't want to kill them, I don't want to shoot them, but how do I get rid of them?" Dogs provide one of the best deterrents, he said.
Hunters have contributed substantially to the success of turkey restoration efforts, as well as wildlife management and habitat protection, through fees they pay for licenses, stamps, tags, and a tax on firearms, ammunition, and sporting equipment.