We’ve restored forest habitat for wild turkeys, but they prefer our farms & cities

The forests of New England hit their nadir in the mid-19th century, when they accounted for less than a third of the state. As agriculture exhausted the soil, new land to the west promised greater returns, and burgeoning industries offered steadier wages. Farmers abandoned the land their grandfathers had cleared, and trees sprouted up around the stone walls they left behind.

Today, more than 60 percent of Massachusetts is forestland. For conservationists, the return of the trees seemed a dream come true. As the population emptied off the land, returning to cities and their suburbs, it seemed possible to reestablish the frontier, to restore the woods to their pristine splendor, to again draw a line between nature and civilization.

Naturalists hoped to restore a pristine wilderness, but that’s not where the turkeys had once thrived. No one was burning the underbrush for them anymore, or promoting the growth of nut-bearing trees. Turkeys had lived in the New England landscape in tandem with Native Americans, who had carefully tended the environment. And once the descendants of European settlers ceased hunting them at unsustainable levels, they moved right back in.

They came back to find cities that had more space to accommodate them. Dirt lots and pavement had yielded to grassy medians and green yards. Gone were the tens of thousands of horses pulling carts, the pigs rooting through slops, and the dogs wandering off leash. They found few competitors, and fewer threats. The contemporary city might as well have been designed for turkeys.

They strut proudly about town, chests puffed out with infinite complacence. The line between wilderness and civilization has dissolved. But then, it was always an illusion.

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