Island-bred turkeys flourish on Martha's Vineyard

They may look wild, but they have some domestic blood.

Turkeys cross Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road despite oncoming traffic. —Stacey Rupolo

The fall turkey season is long over, and even Thanksgiving has passed. The only thing Martha’s Vineyard wild turkeys have to fear — until the spring hunting season — is a snowy winter and fast-moving motor vehicles.

According to David Scarpitti, a wildlife biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), Island turkeys don’t have much to fear in the spring either. He has spoken with some local hunters, who say that they don’t like hunting Vineyard turkeys because they are too tame.

Turkey hunting has been legal on the Island since 2003, Mr. Scarpitti said, but participation is low. He said the reported annual harvest fluctuates “between zero and two or three.” There are probably more harvested but not reported, he said by phone (but with a discernible shrug in his voice). “And no one comes from off-Island to hunt turkeys, because they are pretty much ubiquitous in the state.”

Aside from hunters and automobiles, not much messes with an adult turkey. The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is the second largest bird in North America, after the trumpeter swan. Males reach four feet in height, can weigh up to 24 pounds, and have a five-foot wingspan. (There are taller birds and ones with greater wingspans, but they aren’t as heavy.) According to the DFW, most of the inroads into turkey numbers are via predation on the eggs of this ground-nesting bird, and on the poults (the name assigned to the young). The primary mammalian predators of eggs are skunks and raccoons; other mammals that would prey on poults, including foxes and coyotes, are absent from the Island.

There are no records of any wild turkeys on the Island when European settlers arrived in the mid-17th century. Heath hens, yes. Turkeys, no. The species — which now numbers an estimated 18,000 birds in the state — was extirpated from mainland Massachusetts by 1851. The first reintroductions took place in 1972, when some birds from southwestern New York were released in the southern Berkshires at Beartown State Forest. By 1978 the Berkshire population was considered established, and members of this group were then released elsewhere. As populations became self-sustaining, they served as sources for new ones. The first hunting season was allowed in the spring of 1980. The first fall season was in 1991. In order to successfully re-establish the Massachusetts population, 561 birds were released at 26 locations in 10 counties between 1979 and 1996.

The release site closest to Martha’s Vineyard was Naushon Island; in 1987, 22 birds were introduced across the Vineyard Sound. But according to the DFW, an adult turkey can only fly about one-eighth of a mile while beating its wings continuously. It can stay in the air up to a mile with a tailwind. In other words, a turkey would be unlikely to fly to Martha’s Vineyard from Naushon Island (or the mainland).

Citing Susan Whiting and Barbara Pesch’s 1983 book “Birds of Martha’s Vineyard,” James Cardoza wrote, “An unknown number of birds of alleged ‘wild stock’ were privately released at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary … around 1970.” Some of these birds, Mr. Cardoza wrote in his “The Wild Turkey in Massachusetts” (2009), may have been moved to Squibnocket in Chilmark. Ms. Whiting and Ms. Pesch reported the population of wild-strain turkeys to be breeding successfully in 1983, but in 2003 a local newspaper stated they had “died out.”

Other turkeys, “apparently of domestic origin,” had been released “in Chilmark or Tisbury” before 2003, and by that year were reported to number about 500. “These very tame birds varied in coloration and physical structure and appeared to be hybrids of domestic turkeys and game-farm turkeys,” Mr. Cardoza wrote. “Such crossbreeding of wild and feral domestic turkeys is relatively common in much of the United States.” Mr. Cardoza said by 2007, Tisbury officials estimated the town population at greater than 300. The biologist himself reported seeing flocks of more than 50 birds in Tisbury, and more than 30 in Edgartown.

The DFW website states categorically that the Vineyard population is derived from “pen-raised” or “game-farm” animals that were released either intentionally or accidentally. There is no record of the M. gallopavo ever living on Nantucket. As of 2016, it is still not present there, nor is it found in Suffolk County (Boston).

Game-farm turkeys have three possible sources. They may have originated as eggs removed from the nests of wild birds, or they may be live-trapped wild birds. Or they are the result of crossbreeding wild and domestic birds. Some of the so-called heritage breeds of M. gallopavo — like the Standard Bronze — look very much like the wild birds.

Marion Larson, the chief of information and education for the Westborough office of the DFW, said that no birds were released on Martha’s Vineyard because the plan was to re-establish the species in its historical range, and the state knew of no evidence that they had ever occurred on the Vineyard or Nantucket. She described the progenitors of the present Island population as having been “illegally liberated.”

In 2011 our “Wild Side” correspondent, Matt Pelikan, suggested that the Vineyard population numbered in the “scores or hundreds” and was not invasive, held in check by roadkill, hunting, and predation by skunks, hawks, and great horned owls. Statewide, the most recent data (in the 2014 Annual Report of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife) indicate that 2,530 birds were killed in the spring 2014 season. David Scarpitti, the turkey biologist for the Southeast District office, notes in his account for the annual report that over 2,500 birds have been harvested each spring since 2008. Only 159 turkeys were harvested statewide during the fall 2013 season, above the 10-year average of 143.