‘He kind of amps them up’: ‘Kevin’ the ringleader as turkeys terrorize Massachusetts town

<span>Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

It’s the time of year when millions of turkeys across the US might justifiably fear for their safety, but in one Massachusetts town the birds have turned the tables, ganging up to “terrorize” residents with pecks, kicks and loud clucking.

People in Woburn, north-west of Boston, have been subjected to a barrage of attacks and intimidation by a group of five wild turkeys, with the situation forcing some to take up improvised weapons and residents reporting being trapped in their homes.

The turkeys, led by a male bird nicknamed Kevin, arrived two years ago. Initially the birds were docile, but as time passed they have become ever more pugnacious, leaving Woburners fearful for their safetyand forced to adapt their behavior.

“They don’t let you out of your house,” said Meaghan Tolson, who lives in Woburn and has named the turkeys.

“They peck at cars, they stop traffic. They go after kids on bikes. If you’re walking or jogging, or anything like that, they come for you.”

The population of wild turkeys has ballooned in Massachusetts in recent years. The birds, which were reintroduced to the state in the 1970s, sleep in trees or even on lampposts at night, but during the day the Woburn gang of five spends most of its time on Tolson’s lawn.

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From there the offenders, described by officials as “black to blackish-bronze with white wing bars, blackish-brown tail feathers and a blueish-gray to red head”, can launch attacks on unfortunate pedestrians and postal workers, and even stop traffic by standing in the middle of the road and pecking viciously at tires.

“The neighborhood’s become a lot more aware,” Tolson, a nurse, said.

“A lot of people will leave brooms or rakes at their front door so that they can get them out if the turkeys are there.”

Tolson said she has even found herself trapped in her home by the birds.

“Some days it is frustrating. I’ll be like: ‘Oh my God, there’s an Amazon package’ and I can’t go get it, because the turkeys are there.

“Then I just have to wait until nightfall. I’ve kind of adjusted over time to it. I know their routine now, so I can kind of work around [them].”

Turkeys are native to the US, but they had died out in Massachusetts by 1851 due to habitat loss, according to MassWildlife, the body responsible for conservation of wildlife in the state.

In the 1970s a group of biologists decided to try to reintroduce turkeys, by trapping 37 birds in New York state and releasing them in south-west Massachusetts. The birds thrived and, supplemented by further out-of-state turkey transplants, there are now 30-35,000 turkeys in Massachusetts.

An unintended consequence has been the expansion of the birds into towns and cities. The turkeys dine on on easy-to-get food, including seed from bird feeders, said Dave Scarpitti, Mass Wildlife’s turkey and upland game project leader.

“Unfortunately, it’s this food source that is most often the cause of human-wildlife conflict,” Scarpitti told the Guardian.

MassWildlife even has a guidance page on its website: “talking turkey”.

“Don’t hesitate to scare or threaten a bold, aggressive turkey with loud noises, swatting with a broom or water sprayed from a hose,” MassWildlife says. According to a “living with wild turkeys” factsheet, residents can avoid conflict by not feeding them and keeping bird feeders raised off the ground. It also advises: “Don’t let turkeys intimidate you”.

Related: How wild turkeys’ rough and rowdy ways are creating havoc in US cities

Tolson blames Kevin, distinguishable as the only male in the group by his impressive size and elaborate tail plumage, for the group’s behavior, noting that when Kevin is absent the female turkeys tend to leave people and cars alone.

“The women are more mellow and not so territorial. But I think he kind of amps them up to get them going to chase people. But they’re never the instigators,” Tolson said.

“When Kevin’s not around they’ll actually just mind their business and walk away from you.”

Frightened residents have made calls to the police, and Tolson said officers sometimes show up and “shush the birds away”. But once the law has left, the turkeys resume their reign of terror. The birds also appear to have bulked up in recent months, Tolson said, making them even more intimidating.

“These turkeys are, like, Thanksgiving ready,” she said.

“When [Kevin] goes after you, he can kick pretty good.”

Despite all the trouble, Tolson said she wishes the birds no ill will.

“When I don’t see them for a couple of days, I think: ‘Oh, no, someone has run them over’,” she said.

“I mean, yeah, they can be a pain sometimes. But, you know, they’re just turkeys.”