Wild Turkey on the Rocks?

Photograph by Andrew Zuckerman
Photograph by Andrew Zuckerman
Photograph by Andrew Zuckerman

Wild Turkey on the Rocks?

The reintroduction of America's beloved holiday fowl has been one of conservation's great triumphs--but now some populations are plummeting. What's going on?

By T. Edward Nickens
Published: November-December 2013

The scene is a staple of American holiday traditions, a verity founded during the birth pangs of the nation. The place: Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts. The year: 1621. In countless illustrations of what is considered that first Thanksgiving feast, tables groan with the harvest of field and forest while black-clad Pilgrims and leather-clad Wampanoag natives encircle the centerpiece dish--a perfectly browned wild turkey. While there's no question that a harvest meal was held in Plymouth Colony, there's no direct evidence that a turkey made the menu. The one surviving document that mentions the formative feast suggests that the big bird on the table--or birds, considering that the gathering drew 140 or more--was likely goose or duck. Just prior to the fete, wrote Plymouth leader Edward Winslow, the colony governor "sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoyce together after we had gathered the fruit of our labours."

Kathleen Wall, a culinary expert at Plimoth Plantation, the Massachusetts living history museum, provides some insight. "When Englishmen referred to 'fowling,' they are generally talking about waterfowl. Winslow specifically mentions deer, so we know there was venison on the table. And earlier, the governor wrote that turkeys were plentiful that year." After that oblique reference, however, the turkey track goes cold. "As far as that first harvest meal," Wall allows, "we simply can't say there was turkey."

These days that's not the only mystery surrounding Meleagris gallopavo. The reintroduction of the wild turkey to North America is frequently touted as the greatest wildlife conservation success story of the last century. Heavily hunted since the earliest days of European occupation, pushed out of huge swaths of its range by logging and land clearing, wild turkey populations reached a nadir in the early 1930s, with a continental population of about 30,000 birds. Today, after a massive trap-and-transfer effort that has spanned a quarter-century, about 7 million wild turkeys strut, gobble, and yelp from every state where they are native, and then some. "This was a monumental, continent-wide effort," says Tom Hughes, assistant vice president of conservation programs for the National Wild Turkey Federation. "There aren't many stories as inspiring in the history of wildlife conservation."

Like the legend of that plump-breasted turkey at the Pilgrims' feast, there's a twist to this tale as well. Wild turkey numbers are stable and even increasing across parts of the bird's range, but biologists in many southeastern states, considered a turkey stronghold, are concerned that populations in the region have tumbled during the past 10 years. In some places numbers may have shrunk by more than half. Even where outright population numbers haven't dipped, biologists note a steep drop in the quantity of chicks, called poults, that accompany hens in the summer. "Without exception, all southeastern states are seeing declining production," says Michael J. Chamberlain, a wildlife ecology and management professor at the University of Georgia.

Fifteen states have formed a cooperative effort to study the declines and, hopefully, put brakes on the slump. Headed up by Chamberlain and wildlife biologists from Texas A&M University, the Southeast Regional Wild Turkey Reproductive Decline Study is working with wildlife agencies and conservation groups such as the National Wild Turkey Federation to find out if there are common factors affecting turkeys throughout the Southeast. The effort is not just about gobblers. Healthy wild turkey numbers can be an indication that overall habitat quality is high, and biologists worry that a decline might mean that other, less stud- ied species could be suffering under the radar.

 

While only one turkey species is  known to North   America, there are five distinct subspecies found in  the United States. The most common by far is the eastern wild turkey, which ranges from Florida to Maine and as far west as the Dakotas. (Small stocked populations also exist outside the bird's native range, in California, Oregon, and Washington.) This is the "remarkable" and "magnificent" bird that so impressed John James Audubon, and that appears in our collective vision of the Pilgrims' plenty. (Despite popular opinion, Benjamin Franklin never proposed the wild turkey as a national symbol. He wrote about the turkey in a letter to his daughter, and groused about the bald eagle--a bird "of bad moral Character"--after it appeared on the seal adopted by a fraternal group of Revolutionary War officers. The wild turkey, he wrote, is "a much more respectable Bird . . . though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.")

Peninsular Florida is home to the smaller, darker Osceola turkey. The long-legged and gregarious Rio Grande turkey is native to the central plains states. The Merriam's turkey is tied closely to ponderosa pine forests scattered throughout the mountains of the American West. In the extreme southern regions of Arizona and New Mexico, fewer than 1,000 Gould's turkeys live at the northern fringe of their northwestern Mexico range.

When the first Europeans arrived in the New World, the bronze eastern turkeys seemed to be everywhere. As Hernando de Soto crossed into North Carolina in the spring of 1540, his soldiers were given great numbers of the birds--700, according to one account. "Turkeys there be great store," wrote William Strachey of 1612 Virginia, "wild in the woods, like phesants in England, forty in a company . . . yt is the best of any kind of flesh which I have ever yet eaten there." Thomas Morton, the chronicler of eastern Massachusetts in the early 17th century, pondered the huge quantities of the birds reported by Indians. "I have asked them what number they found in the woods," he wrote, "who have answered Neent Metawna, which is a thousand that day."

Centuries later, wild turkeys incite an especially passionate response from bird lovers. Hear a turkey gobble from afar and that otherworldly cry jolts your senses. A flock of turkeys feeding in a pasture corner suggests all the hidden, unseen life of a forest--if a creature so large can remain so secretive, right in our midst, what else might make a living just inside the wood's edge? And any- one lucky enough to watch a mature tom turkey strutting his stuff won't forget the sight. When displaying for a potential mate, males parade back and forth, feathers puffed out like hair on a mad dog's back, dragging wing tips along the ground, spitting, and drumming. The ground seems to shake with the thunder of a gobble at 15 feet, and a hot bird might gobble once or twice or 40 times in a row. The head is afire, fleshy waddles and snood turning brilliant blue and red and the forehead gleaming white.

This extravagant display--and famously tasty breast--put the birds in the crosshairs early on. Audubon noted the decline of wild turkeys in the early 19th century. Already the birds were growing "less plentiful in Georgia and the Carolinas," he wrote, and were "becoming less numerous in every portion of the United States." The National Wild Turkey Federation reports that turkeys were extirpated in Connecticut by 1813 and Vermont by 1842, and that by 1920 they had vanished from 18 of their native 39 states.

The coordinated restoration by state wildlife agencies, supported financially by the Turkey Federation, involved the trapping of wild turkeys in locations with relict, holdover populations, and trucking the birds--often across state lines and frequently for a thousand miles or more--for release into forested habitats. Through the group's Super Fund program--which has raised and spent more than $412 million for turkey conservation--state chapters were able to reimburse state wildlife agencies for the cost of trapping and transferring turkeys. The first interstate transfer happened in 1987, when Connecticut, where the species had been reestablished, shipped 17 wild turkeys to Maine, and Georgia and South Carolina teamed up to transfer 45 birds to Texas. Since then more than 200,000 gobblers have been captured and moved to areas where turkeys are few or nonexistent.

While some ongoing trap-and-transfer programs are still targeting areas such as east Texas, where there's ample quality turkey habitat, the restoration phase is winding down. Now the National Wild Turkey Federation is refocusing its resources--a quarter-million members and three dozen staff biologists from coast to coast--toward larger-scale conservation efforts. The group is identifying eight to 10 "landscape focal areas" for intensive habitat improvements, which could take the form of more precise prescribed burning, reducing invasive plants, and reestablishing cottonwood groves along midwestern streams. Such projects would serve wild turkeys as well as golden-winged warblers, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and even sage-grouse, all species that benefit from early successional habitat (grassy landscapes that evolve into forests). Retaining and bolstering the number of turkey hunters is also a priority; the group hopes to attract 1.5 million new hunters over the next 10 years, hunters whose license fees and conservation donations will provide more funding for research and man- agement. "Turkey hunters pour millions of dollars into their passion," says Hughes. "Every dollar they contribute to wild turkey conservation benefits so many other wildlife species.

"We've restored the wild turkey to the American landscape. Now we need to turn our attention towards maintaining habitat for these birds. The sky is not falling, but these declines are a serious issue, and no one is resting on their laurels."

 

The raw numbers of the mysterious declines underscore the urgency. In Mississippi, wild turkey numbers peaked at about 410,000 in the late 1980s, and have since declined to a current population of 270,000. In Georgia, 400,000 turkeys prowled pine flats and hardwood ridges in the mid-1990s; during the next decade that number fell by a quarter. Although numbers have since rebounded, the 2010 estimate, the latest available, pegs the Georgia population at 335,000. Arkansas turkey populations may have fallen as much as 65 percent since 2003. Missouri's statewide turkey flock has shrunk by 30 percent in 10 years, with some regions of the state losing half their birds. Even in states where turkey populations and the annual number of birds taken by hunters continue to climb--such as North Carolina--wildlife managers are concerned. "When my colleagues in other states hear that we haven't seen the population declines evident elsewhere," says Evin Stanford, wild turkey project leader for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, "they all say, 'Be patient. It's coming.' "

Researchers are taking a two-pronged approach to studying wild turkey populations. First, partners in the Southeast Wild Turkey Reproductive Decline Study are poring through mountains of data to tease out possible factors that might be dampening turkey tallies across the region. "It's very clear that something is going on," says Chamberlain, who is leading the study. So far the declines are occurring across habitat types, from heavily forested mountain regions to pine flats and coastal plain swamps. "Almost assuredly," Chamberlain says, "it will be a combination of factors at work."

A host of potential problems are under discussion. Some of the hardest-hit states, such as Arkansas, have endured a succession of cool, wet springs, which fuels concern about the "wet hen hypothesis." Damp air and soggy feathers create ideal scenting conditions for predators, which might then find nesting hens more easily. Many biologists point to an increase in mid-sized predators such as raccoons in the wake of the collapse of the trapping industry. The relatively recent arrival of a new predator, the coyote, to parts of the South has raised a flag. So, too, has the expansion of fire ants and feral hogs. No one knows just how much of an impact, if any, these things might have on wild turkey populations.

Some theorize that the declines may not be as bad as feared; decreasing population numbers could be a natural response to the reintroductions. In other words, in many areas, wild turkey numbers may have reached an equilibrium after years of rapid growth. "With restoration," Chamberlain explains, "so many birds exploited these vacant niches that populations simply took off." Certain landscapes may be at their full carrying capacity--there's only so much food, nesting cover, and brood habitat available. "Turkey restoration is a relatively new phenomenon," explains Jason Isabelle, a wild turkey biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "Our population peaked early in the last decade, and we suspect that the numbers we're looking at now are more sustainable."

Biologists agree that both habitat quantity and quality has changed across the South, and not in a good way for wildlife. Between 2000 and 2010, the region's human population grew faster than in any other part of the country. In the first part of that decade logging was rampant. Habitat loss will likely continue, and an erosion of habitat quality on large forest tracts could lead to bird declines. At the same time, forest ownership has changed dramatically. Between 2000 and 2005 alone, more than 18 million acres of southern industrial timberlands were sold, largely to timber investment management organizations that worry less about sustainability and more about financial returns. "This may be a big part of the problem," says Hughes. "Timber companies that used to do good, active management--lots of fire, patchy thinnings--are going by the wayside. That activity created nesting and brooding cover."

While the study team is crunching numbers from across the Southeast, turkey researchers are turning to emerging technology that promises a far higher-resolution picture of wild turkey populations than ever before available. In one recently completed Georgia study, researchers hiked through longleaf pine stands at night using handheld thermal imaging scopes to identify specific roosting trees used by wild turkeys, then returned in daylight to take exact measurements of what wild turkeys look for in an overnight roost. The work could lead to better management guidelines for landowners.

 

In Louisiana and Texas researchers are using small 4-inch-by-2-inch GPS units to study how wild turkeys respond to flooding and hunter pressure. Chamberlain is heading up a new project in Georgia to study how nesting wild turkeys respond to prescribed fire. His students hope to capture and outfit at least 30 birds with GPS units, and follow them throughout the breeding and nesting seasons. Data from the GPS units can be downloaded from as far away as a mile, giving researchers a detailed look at where the birds go when their nesting areas are burned, how far they travel, and how long it takes them to return. "In this part of the world, up to half of the landscape is burned in any given year," Chamberlain says. "We've never been able to get at how birds respond to the timing and scale of fire, but now we can. It's actually quite an exciting time to be thinking about turkeys. In the next one to five years we'll see a massive increase in the amount of information we have about these birds."

Studying the status of wild turkeys can suggest how other animals are faring in a variety of habitats. While they need wooded landscapes, wild turkeys can make a living in a wide variety of habitats, from open hardwoods to managed pine plantations to tangled bottomland swamps. In the spring, however, they are less flexible. Hens and young turkeys in particular shift from being a forest bird to an early successional habitat species: To survive, poults need insect-rich grasses and shrubs and relatively open cover in which to chase their dinner. It's the same habitat that supports a host of other birds facing population declines, from bobwhite quail to dickcissels to bobolinks.

No one wants to see the turkey go the way of the northern bobwhite quail, another wide-ranging upland bird, particularly beloved in the South. Numbers for bobwhites, one of Audubon's Common Birds in Decline, have fallen more than 80 percent since 1967. "We can only imagine that 40 years ago a bunch of quail biologists were sitting around in a room saying, 'Wow, we're not seeing the quail we used to,' " says Kevin Lowrey, turkey biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. "Now here we are, spending money and scrambling to keep quail on the landscape. Whether the turkey problem is a habitat problem, a problem with regulations, a response to changing climate, we want to know. Even if we can only fix a part of it, we want to know."

WILD TURKEY

Meleagris gallopavo

Range: Wild populations are now found from coast to coast in the lower 48 states, as well as in parts of southern Canada and south to central Mexico. A related species, the ocellated turkey, occurs in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, northern Guatemala, and northern Belize.

Habitat: Across its broad range, found in a wide variety of habitats, from swamps to arid brush country to mountain pine forests and even the edges of suburbs. Generally found in places where heavy cover is interspersed with open areas, so it is less likely to be found in unbroken forest.

Status: Although populations were seriously reduced by the early 20th century, they have since rebounded in most of their former range north of the Mexican border and have been introduced into many new areas where they did not occur historically. The total population of wild turkeys in the United States and Canada is approximately 7 million. In some eastern states, turkeys are even showing up in residential areas.

Threats/Outlook: The species is doing well in most of its range, thriving and even expanding into new habitats in some regions. In certain southeastern states, declining populations are reason for concern. Researchers are trying to find the cause. Until then the outlook for turkeys is uncertain in the Southeast, and possibly elsewhere.--Kenn Kaufman

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