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A Turkey Tale

These wild birds are fanning out across the park

Turkey photograph by Gerry Lemmo

When I came around the steep curve on Route 9N about a mile from Elizabethtown, I hit my brakes hard and leaned on my horn. This inspired the rafter of 25 or so wild turkeys loitering in front of me to run in every direction except off the road. I managed to stop about 15 feet shy of the flock, stabbed the emergency flasher button, jumped out of the car and charged the turkeys, which ran all over the road until I heard the explosion of air brakes 50 yards behind me followed in milliseconds by the apocalyptic blast of a giant air horn.

The birds ran hell for leather into tall grass on the side of the road and disappeared as the truck driver, smiling ear to ear, gave me thumbs up. Twenty minutes later, on the way home, I had to get out of the car to flush the birds again. As spring and summer progressed I saw more wild turkeys than I could believe, in places I would never have imagined them.

Extirpated from the Northeast by hunting and habitat loss by the mid-19th century, wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) held on in remote wilderness areas of the Appalachian and Cumberland pla­teaus, from where they slowly made it into extreme southwestern New York. Since the 1920s wild turkey populations have risen exponentially, from approximately 100,000 to 1,250,000 in the Northeast, a dramatic increase that owes itself to one of the most successful wildlife reintroduction programs in the United States.

After attempts to release farm-raised birds into the wild failed (they proved insufficiently hardy), wildlife managers trapped wild turkeys in areas with healthy populations and relocated them in suitable forest habitat. Tough and adaptable, wild turkeys prefer woodlands with adjacent fields. They scratch the forest floor looking for acorns and other mast, and march abreast across open fields in search of grasshoppers. Newly hatched turkeys need almost instant access to insects.

Females have an average of 12 chicks, or poults, so populations can grow rapidly in a particular region. This year’s extremely mild, relatively snowless winter significantly re­duced wild turkey mortality: they can forage effectively in six inches of snow, but 12 inches shuts them down and they tend to roost in trees for days rather than try to feed.

Though strong fliers, turkeys spend the majority of their lives walking, which they do as soon as they hatch. The fe­males do all the parenting, taking care of young males through the fall and young females through early spring. Young males disperse in search of territory unoccupied by another male, and wild turkey populations tend to expand their range by about four miles a year.

The reintroduction program began in the late 1940s, and by the 1970s New York’s population had expanded sufficiently in number and range that the Department of Environmental Conservation began trapping birds for reintroduction in Vermont, which now has a healthy, sustainable flock of expatriate New York birds.

In most of the Adirondacks hunting season for turkeys is the first part of October, from sunrise to sunset, and the birds all but disappear from the landscape. By November, the wary birds return to their favorite haunts to scuff fallen leaves for seeds, nuts and the last bugs of autumn.

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