Can the Wild Turkey survive? Thanksgiving is the least of its troubles.

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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Something is after the Wild Turkey. Actually, almost everything is.

A pair of Wild Turkey hens forage in a field in Eastern Maryland.

A brutal combination of coyotes, hunters, loss of habitat, hawks, climate change and troubles in the nest is undermining the species that once competed for the title of national bird. In parts of the country, populations are down by half and the overall drop is about 15 percent

“We have a problem,” said Michael Chamberlain, a University of Georgia wildlife expert who leads a 15-state consortium working to find a response. “A lot of things like to eat turkeys.”

For the past half century, the Wild Turkey was the poster bird for how to bring back a species approaching extinction from overhunting and loss of habitat. Starting in the 1970s, hunters, environmentalists, wildlife managers and researchers joined forces in a campaign that pushed the nationwide population up to more than 7 million birds. 

Michael Chamberlain

But today, the combination of a warming climate, the acceleration of development and all those predators has started unraveling that progress, particularly in southern states.  “We thought maybe it was just a natural phenomenon, where the population had peaked,” said Chamberlain.. “But fast-forward to today, the populations are not doing as well.”

The Wild Turkey is a tough bird and more versatile than many species, which is part of the reason it has spread to almost every state in the union. But what worries researchers the most is the steady decline in chicks, or poults, suggesting that conditions turkeys need to reproduce have been altered too much  — and they’re not exactly sure what’s at fault.

“We really don’t have a full understanding of what this is doing to turkeys in the nest and during the brood-rearing season,” said Mary Jo Casalena, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and nationally recognized expert. “You’ve got to have a balance of everything.”

A male turkey, or tom, show off his massive form, beautiful tail feathers and impressive “snood” that hangs down his front. (Getty image)

Turkey is on our minds this time of year. Nearly 90 percent of American households serve turkey at Thanksgiving. A few Wild Turkey reach the table, but the vast majority of the 50 million birds that will be carved up this week come from farms.

The domesticated cousin of the Wild Turkey is more like a distant relative today, after farmers steadily boosted up its weight and bred the color out of both feathers and meat to make the bird more appealing at the supermarket.

But those working to save the Wild Turkey hope the popularity of turkey in general — and its story dating back to the origins of the country — should help with the conservation work ahead.

Mary Jo Casalena, turkey biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission

Casalena said she expects nothing but support from all the parties involved, particularly hunters, who led the way on the earlier campaign and also pay for most conservation measures with fees and taxes. “Hunters are supportive,’ said Casalena. “They know it means they’ll have more turkeys in the future.

And as more people come to understand the fix the Wild Turkey faces, researchers think that will help the push for solutions.

“The Wild Turkey has a broad and diverse history in our culture,” Chamberlain said. “The domestication of the turkey has been important to the fabric of North America, and it’s a huge recreational engine focused entirely on hunting this bird. You wrap those two together, and you have an important species that means a lot to people.”

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Five Wild Turkey Facts

  • Ben Franklin suggested the turkey as the national bird – not in a public push but in a letter to his daughter. The Bald Eagle won out, but the story helps boost the bird’s status.
  • Wild Turkey aren’t great flyers, but they can go up to 55 miles an hour for short distances. Their farm-raised cousins can’t fly. They’re too heavy and don’t get any exercise.
  • That red fleshy growth on the Wild Turkey’s face, called a snood, figures into its mating ritual. It might be unappealing to humans, but hens love the look.
  • Wild Turkeys eat many things, including berries and insects. They forage in the woods and fields surrounding their nests, and roost in trees at night.
  • Turkeys date back millions of years. Native Americans ate the meat and used the feathers for arrows. Was turkey served at the first Thanksgiving? It’s not clear, but the suggestion is nonetheless woven into American lore – and the bird’s story.
Sources: National Turkey Federation; U.S.D.A; University of Illinois Extension.
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