Thursday, December 6, 2012

Don't Call It a Comeback: Wild Turkeys in New England

Note: This program first aired on November 24, 2012.

Come November, many minds in America start daydreaming about the bird that could have been our national symbol, the Turkey. Amazingly, that bird you buy in the grocery store or order from your local farm is the same species as those wonderful prehistoric baby dinosaurs you see in flocks along the roadside or in the fields as you drive to work.

Wild turkeys are found throughout the lower 48 states and into parts of Mexico. The species is actually comprised of 6 sub species, separated by geography. All of the sub species are derived from the southern Mexican wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo). This is the species that the Aztecs of Mesomerica and the Anasazi of the desert southwest were known to have domesticated, one of the few “New World” organisms that lent itself to agriculture. Interestingly, this Aztec domesticated turkey was then brought to Europe by Spanish conquistodors and gained popularity there.  It was further selectively bred in Europe and then came back to the new world with the colonists, who had no idea that there was already a wild turkey waiting for them here in colonial North America.  The sub species we see here in Maine is the Eastern Wild Turkey; Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), and as a sub species it is able to interbreed with the domesticated turkey.

Wild Turkeys were once abundant throughout New England, but the spread of agriculture during the colonial period up through its peak in the 1800’s, combined with unrestricted hunting nearly exterminated the species in our area. Most New England states went from being almost entirely forested at the time of European colonization to being 60 to 90 % cleared for cropland and pasture. This clearing of the land strongly decreased diversity across the landscape and obliterated wild turkey habitat. Turkeys need mixed woodland with nut bearing trees like oaks and beeches as a food source. They roost high in trees at night to avoid nocturnal predators. Young turkeys need dense shrubbery for cover and lots of insects to feed on to fuel their rapid growth. A patch work of diverse northern hardword forest is ideal for them, and that is what has been regenerating in much of New England since agricultural clearing peaked in the 19th century.

The turkeys we see around today are a result of reintroduction programs throughout the northeast.  Maine’s reintroduction program started in 1977 and 78, with 41 turkeys from a wild population in Vermont, followed by 70 more Connecticut turkeys in 1987. From those 111 birds come the 50 to 60,000 we have in the state today. That is a phenomenal recovery, and speaks clearly to the importance of habitat restoration in the field of conservation biology. When released from the pressure of unregulated hunting and total habitat destruction, wild turkeys are able to thrive, achieving population numbers and ranges that are likely higher and wider than the precolonial population. So if you are partaking in the traditional turkey feast some time this holiday season, take a moment to reflect on the marvelous resilience of the bird you are eating.


Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife info:

Vermont also has some nice things to say about wild turkeys:

The Lewiston Sun Journal article on wild turkeys in Maine:

Yep, he really did say that: Ben Franklin, though he never made a public fuss about it, did think the turkey to be a more respectable bird than the eagle.

Nice article in Wired magazine, regarding new research on the domestication of turkeys in North and Meso America

Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel—learn all about the few species that native North Americans were able to domesticate (and why that bad luck doomed them).