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

When the Great Depression came, the stage was set for the wild turkey to make a comeback. Farmers abandoned their homesteads to look for work in the cities. Fields lay fallow and forests began to regenerate.

At the end of World War II, biologists saw the resurgence of nature on the once-cleared landscape as an opportunity to restore the wild turkey. The earliest efforts involved hatching the eggs of wild turkeys and raising the birds in pens, then releasing them into the wild.

"This game-farm idea didn't work," said Kennamer. "Turkeys that were raised in those situations did not have the opportunity for the hen to teach what predators would eat them. It was like taking a kid out of New York City and putting him in the woods and saying 'go hunt.' They didn't know what to do."

The turning point came in 1951 when wildlife biologists in South Carolina devised a successful method of capturing wild turkeys with a net shot from a cannon. The 40-by-60-foot (12-by-18-meter) net trapped the feeding turkeys, enabling the biologists to release them into suitable habitat where wild turkeys were scarce or non-existent.

By 1973, when the turkey federation was founded, the wild turkey population stood at 1.3 million. Coordinated efforts between government agencies, the federation, and the one-billion-dollar-a-year wild turkey hunting industry accelerated the recovery to the population of 5.4 million wild turkeys today.

Too Many Turkeys?

The recovery of the wild turkey has also meant a resurgence of hunters of wild turkeys. Today, wild turkey hunters number 2.6 million and annually spend millions of dollars on camouflage, ammunition, shotguns, and calls. About 700,000 of the birds take a bullet to the head or neck as a result.

"From thinking we were ultimately going to lose them and to have them come back is a conservation marvel," said Kennamer. His pro-hunting organization claims the turkeys' recovery is the result of a federal tax on hunting gear intended to support land conservation and programs that reintroduce the bird into native habitats.

The problem with this story, says Sierra Club's Semcer, is that wild turkeys are now hunted in every state except Alaska, a clear indication that the species far exceeds what biologists believed was its historic range.

"That is problematic to us because they will compete with native species for food and water," he said. "We would rather see efforts focused on the species that were already there."

Kennamer acknowledged that wild turkey populations can be a nuisance in the western United States, especially on farms where they get into hay bails and spoil them as cattle feed. But he dismisses the notion that they could destroy the habitat of another species. "They don't do it," he said.


Use this National Geographic News article in your classroom with the Xpeditions lesson plan:Can Captive Breeding Save Species?

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