TURKEYS ARE SAFE AGAIN

by Whit Gibbons

November 28, 2010


Turkeys always start their celebrating the day after Thanksgiving. They are totally unappreciative that each year our country dedicates a day to them. Fat, white-feathered, domesticated birds are the ones that land on millions of Thanksgiving tables every year. But the nonmigratory wild turkey, a native species, is the bird familiar to all Americans. Even schoolchildren can draw a picture of a turkey.

Today, wild turkeys thrive throughout much of their original geographic range. A lot of the credit for the reestablishment of the species over most of the country can be attributed to efforts by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) headquartered in Edgefield, S.C. NWTF was founded in 1973 as "a nonprofit conservation organization that works daily to further its mission of conserving the wild turkey and preserving our hunting heritage."

Turkeys occurred naturally in the 1700s from southern Canada into Mexico and Guatemala. Based on reports of early naturalists, eastern North America had an abundance of wild turkeys. But as the country developed, the species began to decline and gradually disappear. Old reports state that the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was killed as long ago as 1851. Some probably survived in forested areas in most states south of New England, although populations became sparse everywhere. Into the mid-1900s many veteran ornithologists had never seen a turkey in the wild because of their rarity.

If wild turkey population levels had continued on the trajectory they took following the arrival of the first European settlers, the species might have been extinct by the end of the 20th century. We would likely be remembering turkeys the way we do passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets--as an extinct species whose disappearance could have been prevented. Fortunately, wild turkeys have returned to the landscape, and their numbers today far exceed those of only a few decades ago.

The present-day success of the wild turkey clearly demonstrates how regulated hunting can have a positive effect on a popular game species. Despite complaints by antihunting groups, a species favored for sport hunting often fares better than other native species. One reason is that substantial efforts are made to protect game species, including maintaining suitable habitat conditions and tightly controlling illegal hunting. Federal and state support for game management comes directly from taxes paid by hunters for firearms, ammunition and other hunting essentials. An additional feature of focused attention on a game species is that scientific research is conducted to understand its behavior and ecology in all seasons and under different environmental conditions. Environmental restoration, research, and management programs to ensure suitable wildlife habitat and population viability for turkeys have been coordinated by NWTF for almost 40 years.

As NWTF notes in brochures and on their website (www.nwtf.org), wild turkeys are one of the country's great conservation success stories. A reliable estimate is that "there were around ten million wild turkeys in the United States before the settlers arrived" and that the big birds served as "an abundant and important food source." According to some estimates, by the 1930s only 30,000 to 100,000 wild turkeys remained across North America due to unregulated hunting and habitat destruction. That would mean three to 10 birds for every thousand that were once present--a dramatic decline. "Today there are over seven million wild turkeys throughout North America, thanks to the efforts of state, federal, and provincial wildlife agencies, and the support of the NWTF, its members and partners." That partnership conservation effort is admirable and highly successful.

As Thanksgiving approaches next year, let's spare a thought for the wild turkey, North America's largest game bird. Due in large measure to NWTF, more wild turkeys now roam the woods and fields of America than have done so since colonial times. True, more turkeys will end up on dinner tables than ever before as well (though most of those will be the domesticated variety). But whatever your family serves for Thanksgiving, we can all give thanks that wild turkeys have been spared the fate of the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet.


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