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?
No one wants to see the turkey go the way of the northern bobwhite quail, another wide-ranging upland bird, particularly beloved in the South. Numbers for bobwhites, one of Audubon's Common Birds in Decline, have fallen more than 80 percent since 1967. "We can only imagine that 40 years ago a bunch of quail biologists were sitting around in a room saying, 'Wow, we're not seeing the quail we used to,' " says Kevin Lowrey, turkey biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. "Now here we are, spending money and scrambling to keep quail on the landscape. Whether the turkey problem is a habitat problem, a problem with regulations, a response to changing climate, we want to know. Even if we can only fix a part of it, we want to know."
Range: Wild populations are now found from coast to coast in the lower 48 states, as well as in parts of southern Canada and south to central Mexico. A related species, the ocellated turkey, occurs in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, northern Guatemala, and northern Belize.
Habitat: Across its broad range, found in a wide variety of habitats, from swamps to arid brush country to mountain pine forests and even the edges of suburbs. Generally found in places where heavy cover is interspersed with open areas, so it is less likely to be found in unbroken forest.
Status: Although populations were seriously reduced by the early 20th century, they have since rebounded in most of their former range north of the Mexican border and have been introduced into many new areas where they did not occur historically. The total population of wild turkeys in the United States and Canada is approximately 7 million. In some eastern states, turkeys are even showing up in residential areas.
Threats/Outlook: The species is doing well in most of its range, thriving and even expanding into new habitats in some regions. In certain southeastern states, declining populations are reason for concern. Researchers are trying to find the cause. Until then the outlook for turkeys is uncertain in the Southeast, and possibly elsewhere.--Kenn Kaufman