by Whit Gibbons

November 23, 2014

This Thanksgiving Americans will consume more than 45 million turkeys. Those ending up on dinner tables amid dressing, gravy and cranberry sauce will mostly be the fat, white-feathered, commercially raised birds that folks will pick up from local grocery stores. A few, however, might be the original native species, the wild turkey familiar to all Americans, acquired through legitimate hunting.

Thanksgiving seems like an appropriate time to address the following questions about turkeys.

Q: Can turkeys fly, or do they always stay on the ground?

A: Wild turkeys are fast runners on land and will often try to escape a threat by sprinting through the woods. But wild turkeys also can fly for short distances and most roost up in trees. A startling experience I had with turkeys was during a nighttime canoe trip on a creek on a moonlit night when we were not using flashlights. We bumped into a floating log, waking up a flock of wild turkeys roosting in the oak trees above. A dozen or more flew directly overhead with a whirring of wings and crashing of tree branches. When I finally caught my breath, I heard them in the trees on the other side of the creek resettling for the night. Domesticated turkeys are generally too heavy to fly and probably can’t run very fast either.

Q: How many wild turkeys are there in the United States? I have heard that they have been reintroduced into many areas of the country where they had been exterminated.

A: Wild turkeys thrive throughout much of their original geographic range, with every state except Alaska having populations that are sizable enough for regulated hunting seasons. Re-establishment of America’s largest native game bird across most of the country can be attributed to efforts by the National Wild Turkey Federation. The NWTF, headquartered in Edgefield, 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.”

According to NWTF, the greatest numbers of wild turkeys are in the eastern half of the country. Among the highest are Texas with an estimated 500,000 and Alabama, considered a top choice for turkey hunting by the pros, with 400,000. Of course, 240 million turkeys will be raised commercially this year, but the idea of potentially encountering a wild turkey, part of our natural heritage, in almost any forest in the country is an exciting prospect.

Q: What was the original natural distribution pattern of wild turkeys?

A: Turkeys occurred naturally in the 1700s from southern Canada into Central America. Eastern North America had an abundance of wild turkeys. But as the country developed, the species began to decline and gradually disappear due to uncontrolled hunting and habitat mismanagement. Some survived in forested areas, but populations became sparse everywhere, almost to the point of extinction.

Q: Efforts are being made to bring turkeys back into the wild across the country, so why is the hunting of wild turkeys still permitted? This seems counterintuitive.

A: The present-day success of wild turkeys demonstrates how regulated hunting and habitat management can have a positive effect on a popular game species. Ironically, a hunted game species often fares better than nongame native species. One reason is that substantial efforts are made to maintain sustainable populations, which means maintaining suitable habitat conditions and controlling illegal hunting. Federal and state support for game management comes directly from taxes paid by hunters for firearms, ammunition, and other hunting essentials. In addition, scientific research can be supported that focuses on understanding the behavior and ecology of the species in all seasons and in different habitats and weather conditions. By coordinating environmental restoration, research and management programs for more than 40 years, the NWTF has helped ensure suitable wildlife habitat and population viability for wild turkeys, which has led to their successful return as America’s greatest game bird – and their continued popularity as Thanksgiving’s main course.

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