A Reason to Give Thanks: The Return of the Wild Turkey

John Roach
for National Geographic News
November 21, 2001

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As millions of Americans gather around the table with family and friends on Thursday, wild turkeys may be the ones with the most thanks to give. A century ago, with a population of only 30,000, the large birds were on the road to extinction. Today, they number 5.4 million.

"The recovery of the wild turkey is definitely a success story," said Bart Semcer, chair of the Sierra Club's National Wildlife and Endangered Species Committee in Washington, D.C. "They are part of America's heritage, and the American people came together to recover the species."

Semcer's enthusiasm for the comeback is tempered only by the fact that the wild turkey's success today is coming at the expense of other species, especially in regions that were considered beyond the wild turkey's historic range.

Headed to Extinction

Habitat destruction and overhunting by early European colonists put the wild turkey—North America's largest ground-nesting bird—on the road to extinction, said James Earl Kennamer, the senior vice president for conservation programs at the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield, South Carolina.

Before the colonists arrived, millions of turkeys roamed across what are now 38 states, Mexico, and Canada. As the colonists struggled to clear land for their homes, farms, and pastures, the most easily available food other than deer was wild turkey.

"As the people were trying to make a living, they didn't have a store to go buy groceries in, so they killed the turkeys," said Kennamer.

By the time the forests were cleared and wetlands drained to make room for rice, cotton, and other crops, wild turkeys had no habitat to call their own and no place in which to hide from their predators, including people.

By 1851 wild turkeys were gone from Massachusetts; by 1907 they had disappeared completely in Iowa. This pattern repeated itself as the colonists marched across the country, killing turkeys and deer for sustenance as they cleared forests to plant their fields and start a new life.

By the 1930s, the only the places where wild turkeys remained were pockets of habitat inaccessible to people, such as the mountainous landscape of Pennsylvania's Poconos and the swamps of Alabama.

A Turnaround

Continued on Next Page >>


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