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The tale of the turkey

November 16, 2011
By RICHARD GAST , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

As families and friends prepare for Thanksgiving feasting and holiday celebration, it seems appropriate to take a few moments to consider the story of the American wild turkey, Melagris gallopavo (eastern forest subspecies silvestris, meaning of the forest), a bird that at one time was so plentiful and so much a part of the American landscape that Benjamin Franklin asked that it be declared the United States national symbol.

It is widely accepted that wild turkeys originally ranged across central and southern Mexico, where they were captured and domesticated by the Aztec Indians, making them one of the first North American animals to be domesticated. They were kept, not just for food, but for their plumage as well, which was used in creating ornaments and making jewelry.

When Hernando Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors came to Mexico in 1519, the Aztec Emperor Montezuma welcomed them into the city of Tenochtitlan. The conquistadors harvested turkeys and brought them back to Europe, believing that the Mexican birds were guinea fowl, the same guinea fowl that were being brought to Europe from the Turkish Empire. Hence the name turkey. The Spaniards also annihilated the Aztecs.

Long before the Spaniards came to the Americas, however, wild turkeys had begun expanding their range, moving north until they could be found throughout most of the North American continent. The Mayans are believed to have used turkeys in ritualistic ceremonies. The Navajo, among others, first viewed turkeys as pests because they could not keep them out of their cornfields. In time, however, they learned to use corn as bait to draw turkeys into pens, where they were kept as livestock.

By the time the Pilgrims arrived, turkeys were abundant in Massachusetts and throughout all of what would become New England. As more and more New World settlers arrived, they cleared land for homesteads, pastures and farming, and hunted deer and turkey without discretion. Eventually, the pioneers traveled southward and westward, systematically eliminating fragile habitat with their advance, clearing and hunting as they settled new territories. Entire forests were clear cut. Wetlands were removed. The wild turkeys' habitat was being eliminated and the wild turkey driven nearly to the point of nonexistence.

By 1820, the last wild turkey in Connecticut had been killed and, by the middle of the 19th century, the once plentiful birds could no longer be found anywhere in New England or New York.

The Civil War brought hunger and food shortages to thousands. By the time the war was over, the wild turkey had been all but eliminated from the east.

In the years that followed, human populations in the Midwestern United States exploded, and the wild turkeys all but disappeared there as well. The once plentiful birds were able to survive only in swamps and in mountainous regions that were too rugged for people to settle. By the start of the 20th century, wild turkeys had been driven to near extinction all across North America.

The Great Depression of the1930s changed everything. Farmers were forced to leave their farms in search of work. They moved to the cities in droves. Forests began to regenerate in fields that lay fallow, and the few remaining wild turkeys, seeking insects, fruit, berries, ferns, tubers and seeds, quickly found their way into these new, early succession forests.

Scientists saw an opportunity and intervened. They gathered wild turkey eggs and hatched them in incubators, insuring the hatchlings' survival. They raised the baby birds in captivity, eventually releasing the young turkeys, or poults, into areas of reclaimed, superior habitat. Unfortunately, the biologists' efforts were not very successful. Turkeys raised in captivity were unable to fend for themselves and they had no knowledge of predators.

But in 1951, wildlife biologists in South Carolina devised a method for trapping wild turkeys with huge nets fired from cannons. They were able to capture entire flocks and then transport the captive birds to areas of good range in other parts of the state to be released. The relocated flocks of turkeys flourished and their range began to expand even further.

It was about that same time that wild turkeys that had somehow managed to survive in the remote mountains of northern and eastern Pennsylvania began to make their way back into western New York. State wildlife managers used the netting process to capture and relocate flocks that had been living in Allegheny State Park, south of Buffalo, to areas of suitable habitat, not just in other areas of New York, but in parts of New Jersey, New England and Ontario, as well. Their numbers have since steadily increased in all of these places.

Today, there are well over 5 million wild turkeys living in eastern portions of North America and more than 7 million on the North American continent. They are found and hunted in all of the lower 48 states. They live, but are not hunted, in both Alaska and Hawaii. Hunters take approximately 700,000 turkeys annually. It is believed that managed hunting, in both the spring and the fall, helps prevent overpopulation, which can lead to the spread of parasites and disease.

The wild turkeys' comeback is a truly impressive one. And thanks to the continued efforts and support of conservationists, hunters and members of the National Wild Turkey Federation, the future looks good for wild turkey populations in New York and across North America.



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