The wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, is one of only two domesticated birds native to North America. The Muscovy duck is the other. Five sub-species make up the entire North American population. The most abundant is the eastern wild turkey, sub-species silvestris, meaning forest, which ranges across the entire eastern half of the United States and parts of eastern Canada. They’re readily identified by their brown-tipped tail feathers, which spread into a fan when the birds are courting or alarmed and by the bold black and white bar pattern displayed on their wing feathers. This is the same turkey variety encountered by the Pilgrims.
According to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, wild turkeys have a global breeding population estimated to be 7.8 million birds, with 89 percent of them living in the U.S. Including their eggs, they are considered an ecologically important part of the food chain, providing nourishment to a wide variety of predators; e.g. foxes, coyotes, weasels, snakes, hawks, owls. When threatened, females (hens) tend to fly. Males (toms) tend to run. When they need to, turkeys can swim.
Humans represent the wild turkeys’ most aggressive predator and greatest threat. During the 19th century, indiscriminate hunting and systematic eradication of forests and wetlands resulted in wild turkeys being driven to near-extinction across almost all of their North American range.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, wildlife biologists tried restoring wild turkey populations by releasing pen-raised birds into the wild. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Then, in 1951, they devised a method for trapping and relocating small flocks of wild turkeys using huge nets fired from cannons. The relocated flocks flourished and their range began to expand.
Wild turkeys are now found and hunted in 49 states. They live, but are not hunted, in Hawaii. American sportsmen and women harvest roughly 700,000 turkeys annually, making them the most sought after gamebird on the continent. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 21 percent of all U.S. hunters (about 2.5 million people) pursue turkeys, making them the nation’s second-most hunted game animal. (Deer are the first.) And wildlife biologists, veterinarians, and pathologists who have studied wild turkeys view managed spring and fall hunting as a way to limit the spread of parasites and diseases.
While parasites and diseases have rarely had serious impacts on turkey populations, there are several maladies that do kill individual birds, either directly or by leaving them more susceptible to predation. Avian pox is one such disease. It’s transmitted among wild turkeys by biting insects; mosquitoes primarily. It rarely causes death.
Histomoniasis, more commonly known as blackhead, is another. The disease organism lives in the digestive tract of small roundworms and is passed when healthy birds eat the droppings of infected birds or eat earthworms that have fed on the droppings. Because domestic poultry are often resistant to blackhead, wild turkeys are more likely to pick up the disease from domestic poultry than the other way around. Wild turkeys have never been linked to disease outbreaks in domestic poultry, cattle, people, or pets.
Wild turkey numbers in the state have been in decline since 2007. And research by Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) indicates that one reason for this may be Lymphoproliferative Disease Virus (LPDV), which can cause tumors to form in the spleen and liver of infected young turkeys. Monitoring for LPDV is currently underway, statewide, by the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab, in partnership with the DEC.
LPDV has been found in wild turkeys in 17 states, with hunter-harvested birds testing positive for the virus in every county in New York. In fact, more than half of the birds tested in New York were shown to be carrying the virus. And 81 percent of tested females were infected. Surprisingly, most of the affected birds appeared to be perfectly healthy.
It’s unclear how a population can support such a high occurrence of the LPDV pathogen. And prior studies in domestic birds have suggested that the virus may be able to infect other birds in the order Galliformes; e.g. ring-necked pheasant, spruce grouse (Ianconescu 1983).
Keeping domestic birds and contaminated feed away from wild birds significantly reduces the potential for extensive impact from diseases. Some people attract turkeys to their yards by scattering birdseed or corn on their lawns. Be aware that this can also attract rodents. If you have a large yard near a woods, you can instead attract wild turkeys by planting fruit or nut-bearing trees and shrubs.
Landowners and managers can make providing quality habitat a part of their management plan. You can learn more here.
You can read more about turkeys in the Adirondacks here.
Photos, from above: wild turkey male (tom); wild turkey female (hen); juvenile wild turkey (poult) courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
This year I have a flock of about 18 that hang around my area, often feeding in our yards. The mast crop was a little better last year, so I hope they can get through the winter. Neither of my crabapples produced fruit this year. The turkeys should do OK if the snowfall isn’t too deep and if they don’t get trampled by all of the deer around my area.
The DEC link near the bottom linking to habitat management is broken.
Thanks, I’ve fixed the link.
Founder & Editor
Thanks Richard, interesting with facts I had not been aware of. The small flock that has wandered through our yard all this year, from poults to adults in one season, has been a joy to watch.
Interesting! I dodn’t know that they were declining in recent years…
The Turkey population has been in decline in New York State for one major reason and that is consecutive wet/rainy/cold springs when the hens must nest/hatch/rear young. Sometimes they can/will re-nest, but not often enough to mitigate the earlier losses. NYSDEC has curtailed hunting over the past three years to hopefully assist Mother Nature with a recovery from early Spring losses.
Mother Nature will eventually break the cycle better than man can by favorable Spring weather. Wild Turkeys are very resilient and although the years crop of young is sharply reduced by the above weather conditions, the hens will survive.
The weather conditions described this year and the previous two were responsible for groups of hens sans young being frequently seen and often at bird feeders, as well.
Not to worry Wild Turkeys will survive!
I agree. A major consideration is their population rebound and spread north is still relatively recent. In essence, they are a relatively “new” species to the area and the ecosystem(s) needs time to adjust. Typically, when a “new” species enters an area, their population grows unchecked until their predator and reproduction level catches up – similar to what happens with an invasive species. In the meantime, overpopulation can cause starvation and disease, as well as population disruption to competing species. Eventually, turkey and other populations will stabilize, although it may be lower than their peak. This stabilization could take 10-30 more years if not more. That is totally natural. Unfortunately, our “management” practices (hunting, etc.) typically are employed before the ecosystem has stabilized, and this just interferes with these natural population cycles, making it difficult to tell what the optimum populations should be in each area.
They’ll be just fine.