Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Adirondack Wild Turkeys Were Once A Rare Sight

Male_north_american_turkeyThe wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of two species of turkeys in the world. The other is a denizen of Central America and as such is of little importance to us here in the Adirondacks. No, we are concerned with our own native bird, the one of such character and pride that Ben Franklin thought it should be the symbol of our country.

When Europeans first descended upon the eastern shores of North America, turkeys ruled the roost, so to speak. Millions of them populated the woodlands, providing food for man and beast alike. But, as is the habit of mankind, forests were cut and turkeys were eaten. As early as 1672 keen observers of nature were already remarking that turkey populations were not what they once had been. In 1844, the last wild turkey in New York was reported in the extreme southwestern part of the state; after that, they were gone.

For years nothing was done to rectify the state of things, turkey-wise. By the turn of the century (c. 1900), approximately 75% of New York had been cleared, agriculture and development dominating where once forests grew. Without healthy forests, turkeys could not survive (hard mast, such as acorns and beechnuts, is a major part of their diet). As the century plodded along, however, many farmers left home, moving to the cities where jobs were more likely to be had. Old farmland began to revert to forests, and slowly turkeys started to come back, making their way northward from Pennsylvania. By the 1940s, the southwestern part of the state was once more populated with these large bronze birds.

To help things along, New York State converted a central New York pheasant hatchery into a turkey hatchery in 1952. Over the next several years, thousands of turkeys were released into the wild. Sadly, this operation was doomed to failure. Speculation was that the released birds were too tame and therefore lacked the brains to escape (or fight) predators. It was also thought that their natural reproduction was too low to sustain a viable population. So the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) went to Plan B: capture wild turkeys and relocate them.

This new plan began in 1959 and saw New York’s wild turkey population successfully soar from about 2000 birds to over 65,000 by 1990. The relocation program was so successful that the DEC started shipping birds to neighboring states to help them reestablish their own dwindling populations.

I saw my first wild turkey in the early ‘80s out at Letchworth State Park. There were two or three of them, and they flew up into a tree along the edge of a small ravine. Prior to this I never would’ve guessed that turkeys could fly. Three years later, a friend of mine shot a turkey and decided we should give it to my mother for Mother’s Day; so he and I and all my roommates drove to my parents’ house with the turkey in tow. It barely fit in the oven, but it was a mighty tasty bird. Ten years later, turkeys were all over the farm fields back home: whole herds of them marching along the rows of cut corn. (And yes, I use the word “herd” intentionally, for when they are walking along the ground en masse, they are definitely a herd.)

Back in the ‘80s it was believed by biologists that turkeys wouldn’t be able to survive the harsh winters the Adirondacks can dish out. Imagine their surprise when turkeys not only moved into the mountains, but thrived! Hardly a week goes by all year that I don’t see a turkey or two, or ten. Sometimes they lurk along the roadsides, picking up grit or maybe hunting insects; other times they are strutting across a neighbor’s yard.

I once came across a hen and her poults hiding in the shrubbery between the second and fourth holes on the local golf course. I was walking the dog, and of course he started barking, so the hen took off, dashing away into the trees with most of her progeny in hot pursuit. Two, however, were left behind. I sat the dog down and we waited. And waited. One of the poults peeped and trotted off after the long-gone parent, but the other remained behind, peeping its distress.

Even though I knew better, the pitiful cries got to me and I finally decided to go “rescue” the thing. My plan was to carry it to the patch of woods in which its mother had disappeared and set it down where she could get to it without having to come near me and the dog. Big mistake. No sooner had I picked up the ungrateful bird then it let out a squawking and wailing that brought the mother running and flapping from the woods. A velociraptor had nothing on her. Fearing for my safety (I’ve heard tales of the damage a turkey can do with its spurs), I dropped the poult, snagged the dog’s leash, and we high-tailed it out of there. That was the last time I tried to help a “stranded” wildlife baby.

A version of this story was first published at the Adirondack Almanack in 2010.


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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

6 Responses

  1. Keith Silliman says:

    A couple of weeks ago, 10 turkeys walked through our spread of goose decoys, set up in a harvested cornfield. This past weekend, we had 12 strolling across our road in Loon Lake. They showed no fear and are fun to watch.

    • Bruce says:

      The first wild turkeys I saw was during an SCCA road rally just south of Syracuse in 1973, near Lafayette. According to the article, they must have been descendants of those hatched and planted in the ’50’s.

      Where I now live in the mountains of western North Carolina, turkeys are pretty much of a nuisance, we have a couple of flocks going up and down the mountain valley where I live, and they’re quite common within the city limits of Asheville.

      We have a creek across the road from the house, which was where my mailbox was. One day after work while I was getting the mail I heard a hen clucking and poults doing their little “lost” call. I walked closer to the creek and saw about a dozen babies (only a few days old) trying to cross the creek to where the hen was. So long as the poults called, momma called back. As soon as they got to the hen, they shut up. It took about 15 minutes for all of the little fluff balls to negotiate the creek and the bank on the far side, calling all the time. I suspect one or two may have gotten swept downstream, out of range, but I can’t say for sure. We usually have one hen hatching poults in the scrub on our property every year.

      The little rascals can fly some when only a few weeks old. I was driving up my road when a hen and poults were crossing the road. The hen took off flying to clear a fence on the opposite side and the poults flew after her. They were only about 8″ tall.

  2. Mudrat says:

    Great article. I remember there were none decades ago. We now have a “horde” visiting our yard a few times a day…roughly 30 of them. You also bring up a good point about “rescuing” the chick. That’ a good point for people to remember across the board whether it’s deer, birds or otherwise.

  3. Dick Carlson says:

    If you haven’t seen this – well worth a watch!

  4. Jim S. says:

    I had a wild turkey on my front lawn on October 31st. It was appropriate because he was a gobblin.

  5. AG says:

    Turkeys – like Red Tail Hawks and Great Horned Owls also make a life for themselves in NYC. I’ve seen wild turkeys in the nature areas of the huge parks in the Bronx.

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