By Joe Shead
Many wildlife species face a gauntlet of threats to their survival, including habitat loss, climate change, rebounding predator populations, and other factors.
That makes the wild turkey’s recovery in North America so refreshing. Biologists estimate that before European settlement, 10 million wild turkeys lived in North America. They were an important food source for Native Americans, and European immigrants quickly developed a taste for them, too. Settlers, however, wreaked havoc on wild turkeys through deforestation and unregulated hunting.
As America’s population grew and pushed westward, settlers, laborers and lumber barons logged the forests; and market hunters and everyone else over-hunted the wildlife. By 1900, turkeys in the East hung on only in areas too remote or rugged to log or farm. By 1920, wild turkeys had disappeared from 18 of the 39 states they previously inhabited. The low point was the 1930s when as few as 30,000 turkeys existed across North America.
But the 1930s also brought change that spawned the wild turkey’s recovery. Farms went bankrupt during the Great Depression, families moved to cities to seek work, and failed farms reverted to forests, prairie and woodlots.
Meanwhile, a conservation movement had taken root in the early 1900s. The Lacey Act outlawed moving wild game across state lines. Lawmakers banned market hunting in 1918. And the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, commonly called the Pittman-Robertson Act, levied excise taxes on firearms and ammunition to provide money for wildlife conservation and restoration. In addition, sportsmen united to conserve fish and wildlife populations.
Around 1930, state wildlife agencies tried to restore wild turkey populations. Trapping wild birds proved difficult, so states used game farms to raise birds and released them into the wild as adults. National Wild Turkey Federation records show that state agencies spent several decades releasing over 146,170 wild turkeys at over 7,000 sites in the United States and Canada. Survival was almost nil. Even when wildlife agencies used domestic hens to hatch wild turkeys, few birds lived long once released. Biologists eventually realized young birds needed to learn essential survival skills from wild hens. Most game farms were phased out.
South Carolina’s Herman Holbrook sparked a turnaround by using a cannon-fired net to capture wild turkeys for relocation. Holbrook baited birds to a capture site, and then fired heavy projectiles from cannons to carry attached nets over the feeding birds. Holbrook’s tactics soon spread to other states.
According to the NWTF, the U.S. wild turkey population rose from 320,000 birds to 1.4 million from 1951 to 1974 through trap-and-transfer programs. In fact, the NWTF’s birth in 1973 marked a milestone in the wild turkey’s comeback. Besides supporting and expanding turkey conservation and awareness, the NWTF united biologists across the turkey’s range with its Wild Turkey Technical Committee, and funded restoration and management programs.
In addition, predators had been eradicated across much of their historic range, and turkeys adapted to eating the agricultural crops that had replaced native forbs, mast and grasses in many areas. In fact, turkeys — which were once believed to be big-woods birds — adjusted well to fragmented habitats. In hindsight, relic turkey populations only survived in large forests because humans couldn’t reach them. It was not habitat they preferred.
Wild turkeys numbered 6.6 to 6.9 million by the early 2000s, and their range expanded to over a dozen states and five Canadian provinces where they hadn’t been historically. Turkeys now live in every state but Alaska, as well as six provinces, and central and eastern Mexico. The bird’s rebound is one of the continent’s greatest wildlife recovery stories.
Since the early 2000s, however, wild turkey numbers dipped to just over 6 million. Some areas in the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest have documented declines. Biologists aren’t sure why, but the birds likely reached the habitat’s carrying capacity. Biologists have also documented lower brood sizes, which might be attributed to more predators and hens nesting in less-than-ideal sites because of high turkey densities. In addition, increasingly frequent spring and summer storms likely hurt chick survival. Maturing forests, which provide less food and cover than younger forests, might also be factors.
Turkeys have also become a nuisance in areas such as Cape Cod and Staten Island, where they adapted too well to humans. In suburban areas, turkeys often dominate bird feeders, root through gardens, and chase pets and children.
Despite these widely varying realities and challenges of modern living, wild turkeys continually adapt and maintain healthy populations in most areas. Hunters can take pride in their role in that restoration.