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Give thanks for turkeys

A flock of turkey poults along with several hens is seen here during mid August. Hens usually band together with their poults to form communal flocks for added protection against predators. Poults grow an average of a pound a month for the first few months after hatching.
TRR photos by Scott Rando

November 26, 2013

With the Thanksgiving season upon us, most of us are thinking about turkey, whether wild or on the dinner table. Wild turkey is common in our region today, and it’s hard to travel in most woodland habitats without at least seeing sign of wild turkeys, but it wasn’t always like that.

The wild turkey was abundant when the first settlers arrived in the 1700’s, but deforestation due to farming and timber harvesting steadily eroded the turkey’s habitat; the turkey was close to becoming extinct in the 1800s. Forestland in Pennsylvania and other states had largely regenerated by the early part of the 20th century, but the wild turkey was slow to recover. According to Pennsylvania Game Commission turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena there were only about 3,000 turkeys statewide in the 1930s.

Pennsylvania, like many other states, initiated proactive methods to help the wild turkey recover to its former range and numbers. At first, people in Pennsylvania raised wild turkeys at several farms and released them into the wild. This worked, but was found to be not very efficient. A more successful technique was initiated in the 1960s; called the “trap and transfer” technique, a rocket net was used to capture turkeys in areas of plentiful population and these birds were released in areas of sparse turkey population. Casalena explains, “From 3,000 birds in 1930, our wild turkey population has grown to about 330,000 currently. We had a high of about 400,000 in the early 2000s.”

In addition to deforestation and unregulated market hunting that took place years ago, turkeys face challenges from nature. Turkeys are ground nesters and suffer a 60-70% average predation rate on nests and eggs every spring from other wildlife such as raccoons, crows and blue jays. The poults (young turkeys) are on the ground and cannot fly for several weeks after hatching; many succumb to predators.

Thanks to Pennsylvania and other state agencies, hunting and conservation groups, concerned landowners, and other private citizens, turkeys are now holding their own in the wild. The next time you’re out in the field and you hear that spring gobbler or see that line of turkeys, perhaps with some small poults among them, give thanks for turkeys.