Wild Turkey on the Rocks?
The reintroduction of America's beloved holiday fowl has been one of conservation's great triumphs--but now some populations are plummeting. What's going on?
When the first Europeans arrived in the New World, the bronze eastern turkeys seemed to be everywhere. As Hernando de Soto crossed into North Carolina in the spring of 1540, his soldiers were given great numbers of the birds--700, according to one account. "Turkeys there be great store," wrote William Strachey of 1612 Virginia, "wild in the woods, like phesants in England, forty in a company . . . yt is the best of any kind of flesh which I have ever yet eaten there." Thomas Morton, the chronicler of eastern Massachusetts in the early 17th century, pondered the huge quantities of the birds reported by Indians. "I have asked them what number they found in the woods," he wrote, "who have answered Neent Metawna, which is a thousand that day."
Centuries later, wild turkeys incite an especially passionate response from bird lovers. Hear a turkey gobble from afar and that otherworldly cry jolts your senses. A flock of turkeys feeding in a pasture corner suggests all the hidden, unseen life of a forest--if a creature so large can remain so secretive, right in our midst, what else might make a living just inside the wood's edge? And any- one lucky enough to watch a mature tom turkey strutting his stuff won't forget the sight. When displaying for a potential mate, males parade back and forth, feathers puffed out like hair on a mad dog's back, dragging wing tips along the ground, spitting, and drumming. The ground seems to shake with the thunder of a gobble at 15 feet, and a hot bird might gobble once or twice or 40 times in a row. The head is afire, fleshy waddles and snood turning brilliant blue and red and the forehead gleaming white.
This extravagant display--and famously tasty breast--put the birds in the crosshairs early on. Audubon noted the decline of wild turkeys in the early 19th century. Already the birds were growing "less plentiful in Georgia and the Carolinas," he wrote, and were "becoming less numerous in every portion of the United States." The National Wild Turkey Federation reports that turkeys were extirpated in Connecticut by 1813 and Vermont by 1842, and that by 1920 they had vanished from 18 of their native 39 states.
The coordinated restoration by state wildlife agencies, supported financially by the Turkey Federation, involved the trapping of wild turkeys in locations with relict, holdover populations, and trucking the birds--often across state lines and frequently for a thousand miles or more--for release into forested habitats. Through the group's Super Fund program--which has raised and spent more than $412 million for turkey conservation--state chapters were able to reimburse state wildlife agencies for the cost of trapping and transferring turkeys. The first interstate transfer happened in 1987, when Connecticut, where the species had been reestablished, shipped 17 wild turkeys to Maine, and Georgia and South Carolina teamed up to transfer 45 birds to Texas. Since then more than 200,000 gobblers have been captured and moved to areas where turkeys are few or nonexistent.
While some ongoing trap-and-transfer programs are still targeting areas such as east Texas, where there's ample quality turkey habitat, the restoration phase is winding down. Now the National Wild Turkey Federation is refocusing its resources--a quarter-million members and three dozen staff biologists from coast to coast--toward larger-scale conservation efforts. The group is identifying eight to 10 "landscape focal areas" for intensive habitat improvements, which could take the form of more precise prescribed burning, reducing invasive plants, and reestablishing cottonwood groves along midwestern streams. Such projects would serve wild turkeys as well as golden-winged warblers, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and even sage-grouse, all species that benefit from early successional habitat (grassy landscapes that evolve into forests). Retaining and bolstering the number of turkey hunters is also a priority; the group hopes to attract 1.5 million new hunters over the next 10 years, hunters whose license fees and conservation donations will provide more funding for research and man- agement. "Turkey hunters pour millions of dollars into their passion," says Hughes. "Every dollar they contribute to wild turkey conservation benefits so many other wildlife species.
"We've restored the wild turkey to the American landscape. Now we need to turn our attention towards maintaining habitat for these birds. The sky is not falling, but these declines are a serious issue, and no one is resting on their laurels."
The raw numbers of the mysterious declines underscore the urgency. In Mississippi, wild turkey numbers peaked at about 410,000 in the late 1980s, and have since declined to a current population of 270,000. In Georgia, 400,000 turkeys prowled pine flats and hardwood ridges in the mid-1990s; during the next decade that number fell by a quarter. Although numbers have since rebounded, the 2010 estimate, the latest available, pegs the Georgia population at 335,000. Arkansas turkey populations may have fallen as much as 65 percent since 2003. Missouri's statewide turkey flock has shrunk by 30 percent in 10 years, with some regions of the state losing half their birds. Even in states where turkey populations and the annual number of birds taken by hunters continue to climb--such as North Carolina--wildlife managers are concerned. "When my colleagues in other states hear that we haven't seen the population declines evident elsewhere," says Evin Stanford, wild turkey project leader for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, "they all say, 'Be patient. It's coming.' "