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?
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.