Birds & Birding

Wild Turkey Restoration: The Greatest Conservation Success Story?

November 26, 2013

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Photo: © Mark Godfrey
Photo: © Mark Godfrey

The restoration of the American wild turkey may be the greatest wildlife conservation success story. Ever.

Consider this: many conservationists once thought turkeys would go extinct. And who could blame them?

By the early 1900s, the continent’s wild turkey population had been reduced to an estimated 30,000 birds—a smaller number than today exists for orangutans, polar bears and African elephants, all species with futures causing considerable angst among conservationists.

Rampant poaching and habitat destruction offered little hope for the wild turkey’s future.

Fast forward to today: 7 million turkeys trot, cluck and scratch around North America, occupying almost all suitable habitat and even expanding beyond their original range.

How did conservationists achieve this dramatic turnaround? Can we repeat it?

Return of the Turkey

Reintroducing turkeys to suitable habitat has been spectacularly successful. Here, Gould's turkeys are reintroduced to Aravaipa Canyon in 2012. Photo: © Mark Haberstich/TNC
Reintroducing turkeys to suitable habitat has been spectacularly successful. Here, Gould’s turkeys are reintroduced to Aravaipa Canyon in 2012. Photo: © Mark Haberstich/TNC

Wild turkeys declined for the same reasons that doom so many species: overhunting and habitat loss.

European colonists viewed turkeys – and most other wildlife – an unlimited resource, to be shot and sold for any reason, at any time.

It seemed that nothing could turn this slaughter around, but fortunately conservationists –Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell and others – rallied. They created protected areas. They started a movement to pass game laws and enforced them.

The habitat loss, in part, took care of itself. The forests of the eastern United States had been logged and cleared, but when farms were abandoned and logging stopped, they quickly reverted to woodlands. While studies show eastern forests face numerous problems, turkeys have proven adaptable; they can live in even small suburban woodlots.

Citizen conservationists played vital roles, from protecting habitat to funding turkey reintroduction efforts. Groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation worked closely with state and federal agencies to ensure a full restoration of wild turkeys.

There were missteps, to be sure. At one point, many state agencies relied on hatchery programs that raised turkeys like livestock, and then released them.

You can take a turkey from the farm but you can’t remove the farm from the turkey. They behaved like domestic birds, ill adapted to live in the wild. These naïve creatures fell quickly to predators, hunters, disease and weather.

On the other hand, trapping wild turkeys in areas where they thrived and reintroducing them to suitable habitat proved spectacularly successful. The birds quickly established themselves in reforested areas. Suddently they began showing up in places they hadn’t been seen in a century.

The first time I saw wild turkeys in the 1980s, few believed me.

My dad and I saw dark forms moving through the woods as we hunted deer in central Pennsylvania. It took a while to realize what we were seeing. The birds moved silently, like ghosts, as turkeys so often do when alarmed. But these were not ghosts. They were part of a nationwide wave of reintroduced turkeys reclaiming their old haunts.

Today, I love walking through the woods and seeing where they’ve scratched for acorns and insects. I listen for their yelps, clucks and gobbles. I watch for the flocks quietly moving through the hardwoods.

They’re back, a dramatic turn of events for a spectacular bird.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Has turkey restoration been too successful? Photo: © Chris Anderson/TNC
Has turkey restoration been too successful? Photo:
© Chris Anderson/TNC

Wild turkey restoration has been so dramatic, in fact, that some say there are now far too many of the birds.

They increasingly rule the suburbs, taking advantage of the mix of forest fragment, lawns and other green spaces. As Jim Sterba reports in his thought-provoking book Nature Wars,they sometimes create problems for their human neighbors. They tear up lawns, cause accidents and even chase around residents, inspiring headlines like “Feathered Menace: Wild Turkeys Threatening Suburbia.”

Attack of the turkeys? Has it really come to this?

With all due respect to those terrorized by large birds, perhaps the bigger problem is that we’re taking a conservation success for granted. We mourn the passing of billions of passenger pigeons and endless herds of bison, then act like it’s a crisis when abundant wildlife returns.

Few environmentalists see a flock of turkeys in the neighborhood – or, say, geese on a golf course – and exclaim: “Success!”

Which is too bad. One of the goals of conservation is after all, to restore wildlife abundance. We have to find ways to accept the wildlife in our own backyards, even if it is not always easy or convenient.

Still, this seems like a good problem to have. If, a century from now, people were fretting about too many rhinos in Africa or too giant pandas in China, we’d say we were spectacularly successful.

Turkeys prove what we can accomplish – when there is passion and political will. Let’s not overlook a spectacular success. This Thanksgiving, raise a toast to the return of the American wild turkey, and use its example to help guide our way in restoring other wildlife.

Author’s note: Portions of this blog originally appeared on Idaho Nature Notes and Down to Earth Northwest.

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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  1. Wild turkeys were among the last species repopulated by conservationists. Because farmed turkeys didn’t take to the wild, wildlife managers figured they had to use wild birds to restock exptirpated areas. They didn’t figure out how to do this until 1951. Using cannon nets (first used on waterfowl), they baited, netted and moved wild turkeys into new areas. Success led to a turkey restocking binge, pushed by the National Wild Turkey Federation. They helped stock turkeys in states that never had them before (at least not since the last Ice Age, 11,000 years before). Including Hawaii.
    One mystery is how and why turkeys — so shy and skittish to hunters — adopted so easily to living among people in suburban and exurban sprawl where they now chase kids going to school, confond mailmen, and peck at their reflections in car doors — among other pesky things.
    This is a wonderful wildlife restoration success story going somewhat awry. It’s a whole chapter in my book: Nature Wars: How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds.

    1. Hi Jim,
      I’ve heard that one of the reasons that the Eastern Coyote has become so prevalent is due to the ever growing turkey population. What do you think?

  2. Thanks Mat … the wild turkey success story does create some conflict. I enjoy watching them however some biologists and grouse aficionados I know hold that the wild turkeys introduced into ruffed grouse habitat in Idaho has had a significant impact on ruffed grouse habitat. Any introduced species will have an impact on it’s new habitat …. whether the impact is negative or positive is always open to interpretation. When we introduce a new beetle or other biological control into a stand of noxious weeds like yellow star thistle most would say hooray yet when we introduced turkeys then some ruffed grouse aficionados said boooo. There is no easy answer and I appreciate you and TNC keeping discussion like this open so that we all think twice about what impact our actions have on our environment. On thing that is constant about our environment it is always changing and not all introduced species cause controversy or problems with residents of the ecosystem they are introduced into. Take these two “non-native” species … most people are fond of cheat grass but have not ran into many who do not like chukars … both non-native species who came to Idaho from the same part of the world and chukars like cheat grass since it is a major source of early green food for them in many years.

  3. Jim, thanks for your comments. And every reader of this blog should read your book, Nature Wars. It is an excellent and thought-provoking read, one of the most balanced looks at wildlife issues in suburbia.

    Ken, thanks as always for your comments. You raise important points about the many gray areas of invasive species. A lot of it comes down to human values. Like many issues, invasive species issues are often complicated. Pheasants may not be native, but their presence is often an indication of conservation-friendly farm practices like CRP, native grassland, shelter belts, etc. South Dakota lost 75 percent of their pheasants in one year–a sign that they are converting native grass to corn for ethanol. Providing farm habitat for pheasants offers a lot of benefits for everyone: habitat for other wildlife, clean water, butterfly habitat, etc. South Dakota lost 75 percent of their pheasants in one year–a sign that they are converting native grass to On the flip side, in some areas pheasants parasitize prairie chicken nests. It’s never simple, but that’s what makes it such an interesting topic for a writer. Thanks again for the comments.

  4. Funny … moments ago I was lamenting on the Idaho birding page about the introduction of wild turkeys in Idaho. Some wildlife biologists and long time observers like me speculate that there is some correlation to the decline of Idaho native birds such as Ruffed Grouse and Mountain Quail in some areas with the introduction and success of wild turkey in Idaho.