TURKEY TIME IS UPON US AGAIN

by Whit Gibbons

November 22, 2015

As Thanksgiving approaches, the first concept having anything to do with ecology that comes to mind for most Americans is a turkey. The image for some is of North America's largest game bird with a fanned out tail as remembered from a painting, photograph or paper drawing cutout on a school bulletin board. Others think of an oven-baked and -browned domestic bird sitting in the center of a holiday table. From an environmental perspective, they are totally different animals, but in terms of origin and genetics they are the same species.

About this time last year I answered several questions people had asked about wild turkeys, such as, can they fly? Absolutely. Last month I was walking through an old-field full of brown broom sedge and the last remaining composite flowers of yellow and white. I heard a rustling in front of me and saw the tall grass moving. Then came flapping and whirring sounds as I watched three large turkeys fly to the tops of three tall water oaks. A turkey's wingspan is more than four feet, so they create quite a spectacle when up close. After I caught my breath, I marveled at them as they perched high above. Turkeys roost in trees at night, so, it being late afternoon, that may be where they spent the night.

Another question was related to the current-day distribution and abundance of wild turkeys, which now thrive throughout much of their original geographic range from Canada to Mexico. They are found in every state except Alaska. Even Hawaii, where they are not native but have been introduced, has spring and fall turkey hunting seasons. Wild turkeys were nearly exterminated during the 1800s and early 1900s due to overhunting but have now recovered over major portions of their natural range.

A variety of groups can be credited for the reestablishment of the species across the country. State game agencies deserve acclaim for carrying out proper management plans. Their efforts in conserving suitable habitat conditions and tightly controlling illegal hunting are essential for maintaining sustainable populations of wild turkeys. Commendation is also due the National Wild Turkey Federation headquartered in Edgefield, S.C., for their efforts in wild turkey preservation. This nonprofit conservation organization founded in 1973 "works daily to further its mission of conserving the wild turkey and preserving our hunting heritage."

Wild turkeys represent an ironic, counterintuitive phenomenon of wildlife management. That is, if hunting the birds was the reason for their decline and eventual near extinction across the continent in the past, how can hunting them now be positive? In the most simplistic sense, population levels of any animal species will remain stable if the number removed by deaths each year equals the number of replacements by new births. As is true of virtually all game species, scientific research is conducted to understand the behavior, ecology and demographic changes of wild turkeys in all seasons and under different environmental conditions. Research and management programs, including habitat restoration, have been in progress almost a half century to retain population viability for wild turkeys. State hunting guidelines are adjusted each year to ensure population stability.

An often overlooked fact about the wild turkey is that it is the only domesticated bird native to the United States. In fact turkeys, along with Muscovy ducks, which occur naturally from Mexico to South America, are the only birds native to the Western Hemisphere that have been truly domesticated. Both still have wild populations, and both are hunted in the United States, but for different reasons. Turkeys are a prized game species. Muscovy ducks are a non-native species (primarily from Mexico) that can be legally removed as a nuisance species in some areas.

We should all be thankful that turkeys are here to stay. Whether obtained by hunting or by a trip to the grocery store, a turkey will be the dinner table centerpiece for millions of North Americans on Thanksgiving Day.

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