“Turkey Pass” History and the Turkey on Your Table

By David Spector Gazette Contributing Writer

Place names often preserve bits of natural history. “Holly wood” and “spring field,” for example, say something about what was found when the names were first given. Others record sad losses. Hills named “Pigeon” and “Chestnut”—which are widespread in the eastern United States—reflect the previous abundance of the passenger pigeon (now extinct) and the American chestnut (now a tiny remnant population). populations of western Massachusetts.

Sometimes a name change tells a tale as well, perhaps reflecting ecological changes. That’s the case with “Turkey Pass”—known now as “The Notch” on Route 116 between Amherst and Granby—a story of change and change again in the forests and bird

When European settlers arrived in the Connecticut River Valley, the wild turkey was common, thriving in the forests that provided ample crops of acorn, chestnut and beech nuts for the turkeys. Fires set by natives helped create forest environments that were especially friendly to turkeys by favoring these nut-bearing trees. The settlers, even those arriving directly from Europe, would have been familiar with the birds, although turkeys were found naturally only in the New World.

Mexican natives domesticated the wild turkey before European contact, and domestic turkeys reached Europe via the Spanish before the New England colonies were founded. Some colonists, in a geographic reverse of “bringing coals to Newcastle,” even brought domestic turkeys from England back to North America. All commercial turkeys, including the Thanksgiving turkey you may be about to enjoy, are descended from those domesticated wild turkeys of Mexico.

Unfortunately for the wild turkey, however, colonists also brought firearms and saws. The combination of unregulated hunting and leveling of the forests resulted in elimination of this bird from much of its original range. The final refuges of wild turkeys in Massachusetts were the Mount Tom and Mount Holyoke ranges, and the last accepted record of a native bird was one shot on Mount Tom in the winter of 1850-’51. Then they were gone.

Starting in 1911, attempts were made to re-establish turkeys in the Commonwealth, but until 1972 most efforts failed or met with very limited success. Learning from the earlier failures, which had used birds raised in captivity, state wildlife biologists that year released wild-caught birds from a population in southwestern New York. The first release took place in the town of Great Barrington in southern Berkshire County. That program was a success and, as the local population grew across the western part of Massachusetts, wild-caught birds from the new population were used to spread the species across the Commonwealth.

The re-establishment of the wild turkey here depended on intelligent intervention, a culture of hunting regulation very different than that which existed two centuries earlier and the regrowth of our forests after the decline of farming in New England. (Details of the re-introduction program are presented in the publication “The Wild Turkey in Massachusetts,” available from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.)

 

The wild turkeys that many of us now see in our yards and throughout our region symbolize a complex history of interaction among humans, our changing cultures, trees and a magnificent bird. With sightings of the wild turkey in the fields and forests of western Massachusetts increasingly common, maybe it’s time to recognize that fact. I look forward to the day when we change the name of “The Notch” back to “Turkey Pass” and acknowledge this welcome return of a native.

David Spector is a former board president of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and teaches biology at Central Connecticut State University.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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