Pecking at crumbs beneath metal tables and chairs, city birds mingle together. They strike the ground with their beaks, mistaking string and candy wrappers for food. A man pulls from his pocket a Ziploc bag. Inside are two stale pieces of white bread. He opens the bag and begins tearing the bread into small pieces, flinging the slices on the ground. Suddenly what looks like hundreds of birds are at the man’s feet. They fight with each other, pulling the bread out of each other’s beaks and speeding away once they think the bread is safely secured in their beaks. The torn bread is gone in a matter of minutes.
Many may recognize this behavior as that of everyone’s favorite city bird, the pigeon. They thrive and live off of the crumbs and scraps of our food.
Other, smaller birds often found in cities are European starlings and house sparrows. They act more secretly than the pigeons. They hop and flutter carefully towards their unsuspecting prey: humans, or, rather, the food that we drop. They walk between our legs. They keep their heads off-kilter, paying close attention to when a crumb of sandwich or a chunk of apple falls between your legs and onto their own plate, which is the ground.
And, so, those are the city birds: rock pigeons, house sparrows, and European starlings. Right? Wrong. While it is true that cities and urbanization are responsible for the destruction of thousands of acres of natural land, 20 percent of the known thousands of bird species can be found in cities across the globe.
In Boston, these birds include the usual rock pigeon, house sparrow, and European starling as well as Canadian geese, seagulls, ducks, American robins, and blue jays. These, still, are common birds that are often found in urban areas. Boston does have a handful of bird species you might not expect to find in a city: most notably, wild turkeys.
Today, it is not unusual to see a pack of wild turkeys wander down the road. The Boston area was first settled by Native Americans in at least 2400 BC, and turkeys were domesticated by Native Americans as early as 25 AD. By the early 1500s, domesticated turkeys could be found in Europe.
During the 1500s, Spanish explorers explored North America and sent domesticated wild turkeys back to Europe, introducing a new type of poultry for farmers to raise in the process. When the colonists started to arrive in the 1600s, they brought domesticated turkeys with them. These birds were widely popular, going for 1 shilling and 4 pence during the early 1700s. By the early 1800s, the price for a turkey was 10 times higher; this can be attributed to the fact that the turkey population had greatly declined. In 1821, the last turkey in Massachusetts was killed and by the 20th century, there were less than 15,000 wild turkeys in North America.
Unfortunately, breeding wild turkeys in captivity did not help the wild population; these birds were accustomed to regular feeding and easy shelter and were therefore unable to hunt for themselves. If wild turkeys were caught, however, they could be successfully relocated. This is how the wild turkey population returned to Massachusetts. In the 1970s, 37 wild turkeys were brought from New York to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. As of 2019, there are now between 30,000 and 35,000 wild turkeys in Massachusetts. In urban and suburban areas such as Boston and its surrounding towns, wild turkeys do particularly well. While it is easy to kill and catch a wild turkey when the bird is out in an open area, it is much more difficult when the bird is surrounded by people, cars, and skyscrapers.
While selling and buying wild turkeys may have played a major role in the decrease in the wild turkey population, they were not the only cause of the birds’ decline. The alteration of land also greatly impacted the fate of wild turkeys.
It was not until the early 1600s that the North American landscape began to greatly shift. While Native Americans may have lived on the land, they had a minimal negative influence on a region’s plant and animal species.
The Native Americans did very little to permanently alter the natural environment and its species. In 1620, the Pilgrims landed on the south coast of Massachusetts, now known as Plymouth. By 1630, Puritans arrived and shortly thereafter founded Boston, which led to the start of the region’s environment being altered.
When the Puritans first arrived in North America they originally made landfall in present day Salem, Massachusetts. At the time, this location was not ideal as there was not a substantial clean drinking water resource. The Puritans were therefore forced to travel in search of better, more livable conditions. This is how they wound up in the region that is present day Boston. This region was ideal: there was clean drinking water and a sufficient amount of plants and animals that they could live off of. In other words, the region was very species-rich and was the most likely place for a community to succeed agriculturally. Additionally, the region is on the coast, which makes it easier to trade goods and maintain contact with the Old World.
Settled on the hilly Shawmut Peninsula, developers throughout the centuries greatly altered the ecosystem and natural environment while building up Boston. The region was originally completely surrounded by water. There were reaches of mudflats and salt marshes, which were covered by water at high tide. The Charles River also flowed through the Boston Harbor, dividing the peninsula from the mainland to the north and to the west.
A quickly growing population in the 19th century spurred a growing demand for land. This led to hills being leveled and coves being filled. So much new land was created that a new land mass was formed; it is now incredibly difficult to determine where the original peninsula was.
Unfortunately, settling in this region also meant that the plant and animal populations depending on its resources could very likely suffer. In many cases, including in Boston, this is what happened; urbanization contributed to the loss of biodiversity as well as the homogenization of biota. While there may be more than rock pigeons, house sparrows, and European starlings in cities, these three birds make up for nearly 80 percent of all bird species found in urban areas. Out of the 20 percent of bird species remaining, wild turkeys are the most abundant and noticeable. They serve as a welcome reminder that the natural world is truly everywhere, even in urban, built-up cities.
Campbell, V. (2015, May 18). Not Just Sparrows and Pigeons: Cities Harbor 20 Percent of World’s Bird Species. All About Birds. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/not-just-sparrows-and-pigeons-cities-harbor-20-percent-of-worlds-bird-species/.
Gao, J., & O’Neill, B. C. (2020, May 8). Mapping Global Urban Land for the 21st Century with Data-driven Simulations and Shared Socioeconomic Pathways. Nature News. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-15788-7.
History.com Editors. (2019, March 7). Boston: A City Steeped in U.S. History. History.com. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://www.history.com/topics/us-states/boston-massachusetts.
Learn About Turkeys. Mass.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://www.mass.gov/service-details/learn-about-turkeys.
Scalese, R., Dearing, T., & Wuthmann, W. (2019, November 25). Wild turkeys in Brookline may be intimidating, but they used to almost be extinct. Wild Turkeys In Brookline May Be Intimidating, But They Used To Almost Be Extinct | Radio Boston. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2019/11/25/turkey-conservation-rebound-urban.
(2018, November 14). The Wild Turkey: History of an All-American Bird. Almanac.com. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://www.almanac.com/wild-turkey-history-all-american-bird.