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Wild turkey population a DEC success story

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The wild turkey was a food staple of the early settlers, and although this important food source likely did not appear on the table at that first Thanksgiving gathering, the turkey stands as the prime symbol of America’s Thanksgiving celebration.

When Europeans began settling on the East Coast, it is believed that wild turkeys inhabited nearly 40 states. Early Dutch settlers, in what is now New York State, reported seeing abundant turkey numbers there. Unfortunately, wild turkeys had disappeared from the state by the mid-1800s. Experts attribute the turkey’s disappearance to the loss of forestland habitat due to timber harvesting, farmland development, and forest fires. Unregulated hunting was likely another factor in the bird’s decline.

SUCCESSFUL RESTORATION

Approximately 100 years after New York State had lost its original turkey population, wild birds from northern Pennsylvania made their way into western New York. By 1960, these turkeys developed into a healthy breeding population in the southwestern portion of the state, and the birds provided DEC with the opportunity to restore the state’s once-thriving wild turkey population.

The restoration effort was basically a trap-and-transfer endeavor. DEC wildlife staff set out corn and oats during the winter when natural food supplies were at their shortest. Once turkey flocks approached the baits, cannon nets were fired to trap the birds. The trapped birds were then released at suitable locations in the state.

Since the first trap-and-transfer effort in 1959, DEC has moved 1,400 birds to sites across the state. The fact that New York state currently boasts of a wild turkey population numbering 300,000 birds is evidence of the program’s success. Like a good neighbor, DEC has assisted other agencies in their turkey restoration efforts by sending birds to the province of Ontario as well as the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Capable of weighing more than 20 pounds and sporting a wingspan of 6 feet, wild turkeys are America’s largest game-bird. Mature males, called gobblers or toms, have a bristly beard protruding from the chest and sharp spurs attached to the rear of each leg. Larger than their female counterparts, gobblers develop colorful heads of red, blue, and white during the breeding season. Yearling toms are called jakes.

Female turkeys are smaller and lighter colored than their male counterparts. During the mating season, a hen will typically lay a dozen or so eggs that hatch 28 days later. Protecting her brood from predators and unfavorable weather becomes the hen’s primary role, and experts claim that only half of the eggs laid will result in turkeys surviving beyond the first few weeks. Young turkeys are called poults and begin flying at 2 weeks of age.

DAILY BEHAVIORS

Having roosted in trees during the night, wild turkeys begin their day by flying down at first light. If there are other turkeys in the vicinity, the birds gather in a flock and move in a “feeding unit.” Although the heaviest feeding occurs during the first and last hours of daylight, turkeys will feed throughout the day. If food is plentiful the turkeys will remain in a small area. Otherwise, the birds will cover great distances.

Wild turkeys feed on a wide variety of thing. Popular foods include plants, insects, seeds, mast crops, fruits, agricultural plantings, and agricultural waste. In fact, biologists have found up to 60 different food items in a single turkey’s crop. Wild turkeys end their day by flying up to mature trees where the birds roost for the night.

DEFENSES AND PROTECTION

Nature has equipped the wild turkey well for self-protection. Its hearing is first-rate and its eyes are capable of detecting the slightest movement. Also, turkeys find protection in their flocking and roosting behaviors. A communication system of various calls keeps turkeys in tune with each other and their surroundings. Also, the birds’ body and wing feathers have both rainproof and insulation value. In times of nasty winter weather, turkeys are capable of remaining on the roost for days at a time.

In addition to the natural protections wild turkeys have, DEC also provides protection through its statewide Wild Turkey Management Plan. This plan allows for hunting opportunities as well as the assurance that the state’s turkey populations will thrive well into the future.

CALENDAR

May 7: Lisbon Sportsmen’s Club hosts trap and skeet shooting at Pray Road property.

May 14: Lisbon Sportsmen’s Club hosts trap and skeet shooting at Pray Road property.

May 31: Spring turkey season closes.

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