Wild Turkeys: Ask the Naturalist
Wild turkeys, true North American natives, have indeed made a dramatic comeback. The first European settlers found flocks of up to 100 individuals, but by the mid-1800s this wily, wary bird was only a memory in New England. Centerpieces of many more meals than the first Thanksgiving, turkeys were hunted aggressively. Birds roosting overnight were an easy target for market gunners. Extensive land clearing also destroyed their favored beechnuts, acorns, and chestnuts, as well as protective forest cover.
When government agencies began wildlife recovery programs in the late 1930s, turkeys received top priority as a popular “game bird.” Birds in remnant flocks elsewhere were trapped and reintroduced to New England states. As one example of the restoration’s success, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department transplanted 25 birds from Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains to Walpole in the Connecticut River Valley in 1975 — and opened its first turkey hunting season in modern times in 1980. By 1990, 49 states had turkey seasons.
When food is bountiful, turkeys remain in the forest, well fed and out of sight, and people wonder, “What happened to all the turkeys?” When acorns and beechnuts are scarce or snow is deep, they appear at farmyards and backyard birdfeeders, and sightings of this avian character are a common topic of discussion among rural and suburban New Englanders.