Community Columns

Wild turkeys — then and now

Turkeys have been seen around the North Fork for some time now, and finally one – this handsome tom – decided to stop by and pay us a visit.

In over 50 years living in our home, we have never seen a wild turkey in the yard — that is until last week. While sitting outside enjoying the late afternoon, I spotted something large at the mulch pile. I tapped on the window to Barbara to come out quietly. As usual, she grabbed her camera and snapped shots of a big tom turkey as he nonchalantly crossed our lawn.

We searched our bookshelves for information on turkeys all the way back to one book that was printed in 1898, but then we decided to look into what we might have written in the past and found an article with all the information we had been looking for. The following is from Focus on Nature, Nov. 25, 2004.

We’re told that the first settlers found turkeys abundant throughout the land but as time went on and the country expanded, with its clearing of land and the uncontrolled hunting pressure, turkeys slowly disappeared from our state. By 1844 the last turkey was taken in southwestern New York. Then almost 100 years later, in the late ’40s, turkeys started to move north from Pennsylvania into the state, where they once again became established.

It was during that year that the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) started to relocate turkeys throughout the state. They didn’t just indiscriminately drop off turkeys here and there; they located areas that had good feeding grounds and the proper habitat to make sure their wild turkeys would be able to make it on their own.

By 1957 turkeys were again a part of the New York landscape. This success story was partially due to the fact that many of the small farms in the state were abandoned, letting the once open farmland revert to natural growth.

And so those people who thought they saw wild turkeys wandering through their backyard were exactly right. They were wild turkeys that had probably been released by the DEC.

Some people who liked to see turkeys about thought they would help by raising some and releasing them into the wild. Sounded good, but it’s against the law to release turkeys into the wild because turkeys are very susceptible to a wide variety of domestic diseases and the DEC doesn’t want their disease-free wild turkeys coming in contact with possible disease-carrying turkeys.

I first became acquainted with the wild turkey when I visited Gardiners Island years ago for Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Counts. I also saw them when I visited Mashomack, that 2,000-acre Nature Conservancy preserve on Shelter Island. There are many difficulties facing young turkeys in the wild. One of the most common causes of death is a persistent cold and rainy period that lasts for days.

For the first three or four days after the young turkeys hatch, they live on the yolk in their new little bodies, but then once that is gone, they must be able to find food by themselves. Of course, the female is always there to keep them together and to lead them to areas where they are likely to find good cover and a place to feed.

The thing I remember particularly on Gardiners Island was how those big birds can fly. It seemed almost impossible that they could get into the air and fly away. It is quite a sight to see a turkey flying. They are agile and swift fliers and don’t hesitate to take to the air if they think they are being cornered or can’t get away by running. It’s been reported that they can fly at speeds of up to 50 mph and run on the ground at 12 mph.

On our Christmas Bird Counts our group covered the whole of Gardiners Island. We found a spot down by Tobaccolot where turkeys roost. They must go to that same spot in the same tree every night; there were pyramids of droppings underneath it.

Turkeys have done so well in many parts of the state that there is now a special hunting season for them. A hunter would be proud to be able to call in an old gobbler and bag it for his Thanksgiving dinner. Turkeys are smart birds and it takes an expert hunter to be able to call one in range of his gun. Wild turkeys are part of the group of such “game birds” as pheasants and grouse and quail, all of which can be legally hunted in season in certain places. However, turkeys cannot be hunted legally in Suffolk County. Male turkeys (toms) weigh from 17 pounds up, with some getting to 30 pounds. That’s a pretty big bird. The females (hens) are smaller, weighing from eight to 12 pounds.

Most everyone knows the turkey gobbler, with his tail spread as he struts his stuff in front of the female to gain her attention. One male can have more than one female companion, and he’s pretty busy keeping his ladies from straying away.

The male has sharp spurs that can be two inches or more in length. These are used in fighting off adversaries. I have seen these spurs in action on my rooster. When the situation arises they throw their spurs up in front of them and with much squabbling and feathers flying, they go at it until one or the other has had enough and turns tail and runs away.

The turkey that most of us will have for Thanksgiving is a domesticated turkey, meaning that it has been bred for its shape, size, meat and, I guess, looks. After all, we want a plump, juicy bird when it comes to the table. In contrast, the wild turkey is built for survival in the wild and is much less plump, usually smaller, and designed for flying. No matter what shape or size or where you see a turkey, whether it’s in Europe or Asia or on a turkey farm, all turkeys originally came from the American stock of our wild turkey.