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The triumph of the wild turkey

By Fritz Mayer
November 20, 2012

Region - The wild turkey is native to North America. According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), turkeys were widespread when the Europeans arrived in the United States and may have predated the earliest human inhabitants.

In New York State, the spread of farmland in New York and the loss of forests due to logging led to a steep decline in wild turkey populations during the 1800s. Without forests, there are no roosting places for wild turkeys and they can’t survive.

Also, there were no hunting regulations regarding wild turkeys early on, and they were heavily hunted. According to the DEC there was a 100-year period, beginning in the 1840s, during which there were no wild turkeys in New York State.

By the early 1900s, however, farming began to decline, and many of the farms began to revert to the kind of land that could once again support wild turkeys. The DEC says, “Around 1948, wild turkeys from a small remnant population in northern Pennsylvania crossed the border into western New York. These were the first birds in the state after an absence of 100 years.”

In 1959, the New York State Conservation Department started a program to trap turkeys in places where they were thriving and move them to other areas of the state; that program proved to be very successful. Today, there are an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 in the state.

The story of wild turkeys in Pennsylvania followed essentially the same path, with over-hunting and loss of habitat leading to a shrinking population, But at the lowest level of population, there were still a few thousand wild turkeys in the central part of the state around 1900. The Pennsylvania Game Commission was formed in 1897, and shortly thereafter began serious conservation efforts, which increased over time and continue today. Additionally, as in New York, farming declined in Pennsylvania, and the land reverted to the type that could support wild turkeys.

The commission reports, “The current success of wild turkey management in the Commonwealth is directly related to increased protection in the early 1900s; the restoration of forested habitat over the past century; aggressive range expansion fostered by trap and transfer work; and conservative fall harvest management strategies that protected the wild turkey population’s breeding base.” The commission estimates the wild turkey population to be 250,000 to 300,000.