Gobble, Strut and Wattle: We’re Talking Turkey

Most everyone is at least a little familiar with the wild turkey. The bird’s signature gobble is easily recognizable, and many people know the story of Ben Franklin pushing for the wild turkey to be the national bird. If nothing else, the domestic turkey is easily recognizable as the signature dish in traditional Thanksgiving meals. Those are the broad strokes, but the story of the North American wild turkey is much more rich and compelling.

Mitzi Jones captured these two male Gould's turkeys strutting in her backyard in the Huachuca Mountains of southeast Arizona.
Mitzi Jones captured these two male Gould’s turkeys strutting in her backyard in the Huachuca Mountains of southeast Arizona.
The wild turkey is one of America’s great conservation success stories. In the late 1800s and early 1900s due to habitat destruction and over-hunting, wild turkey’s numbers dwindled precipitously, and by the mid-1900s, only an estimated 30,000-100,000 birds remained in approximately 20 states. A highly successful reintroduction effort, along with conservative management, created a massive resurgence in turkey populations throughout the country, and turkey numbers continue to grow.

Currently an estimated 7 million turkeys inhabit 49 states, which is 10 more states than was originally believed to be the wild turkey’s native range. The populations are so strong that every state except Alaska allows at least one hunting season, and more than 30 states have both spring and fall turkey hunts. Wild turkeys have become so prolific that in some areas they are considered a nuisance or even a menace.

Dispelling the rumors

Turkeys often get a bad rap. For example, some slang definitions of the word turkey include a failure, shame, and stupid or lazy person. An unfounded rumor that persists about turkeys is that they are so dumb they will look up and drown when it rains. Another unfounded rumor is that tom turkeys destroy the eggs of hen turkeys, and will destroy or eat the eggs and young of other ground nesting birds such as pheasant, grouse, and quail.

Turkeys get blamed for dwindling game bird and even deer populations, simply because turkey populations are thriving when other game populations in the area are not. None of these stereotypes and rumors are based in fact. In terms of survival skills, wild turkeys have a high intelligence, are highly social with numerous vocalizations, and have excellent eye sight and hearing. There is no scientific evidence that wild turkeys destroy the eggs of other game birds or displace deer herds.

Dr. James Earl Kennamer, chief conservation officer of the National Wild Turkey Federation, is one of the county’s foremost experts on wild turkeys. “When turkeys started increasing around the country, quail declined and grouse declined, and people thought turkeys must be causing it,” Kennamer said. “I have been studying wild turkeys for 40 years, and that is totally unfounded. Turkeys do not go and destroy nests, it’s just not in their repertoire to do that. When I hear or read about people saying turkeys are destroying nests of other birds, I ask repeatedly who saw it. To this date, there is zero response of actual evidence.”

Ralph Curtis captured these turkeys right at sunrise.
Ralph Curtis captured these turkeys right at sunrise.
Loss of habitat from land use, not turkeys, is causing dwindling populations of quail, pheasant and grouse in some areas. Wild turkeys, in contrast to other game birds that require specific habitat, are able to utilize many different habitat types and are highly adaptive.

“(Other game birds) are losing a lot of habitat,” Kennamer said. “Pheasant, grouse and quail populations have declined in some areas because they have a narrow window of habitat and diet that they are able to thrive in; whereas, turkeys can adapt to different habitat and have a lot of variety in their diet.”

Along with being one of the greatest success stories of American wildlife conservation, wild turkeys are also important to the county’s economy, with people spending $2 billion annually to hunt turkeys, according to Kennamer.

Thanksgiving isn’t the only time to be thankful for turkeys! For more info, check out NWF’s past turkey blogs.

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Published: April 22, 2014