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Slayton: Return of the Turkey

11/22/11 5:55PM By Tom Slayton
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(Host) Wild turkeys, once extirpated in New England, have made an amazing recovery. Commentator Tom Slayton recently wondered why they had rebounded so vigorously. Here's what he found out.

(Slayton) We’ve all seen them. Dark forms, picking their way thoughtfully across a cornfield or lurking quietly in an abandoned pasture, wild turkeys seem to be everywhere now.

In one field near my home in central Vermont, a flock of nearly 30 turkeys seems to congregate just about every afternoon. Estimates suggest there are now more than 35,000 of them living in Vermont alone.

Why are there suddenly so many wild turkeys? They seem to be a force of nature itself.

And to a certain extent they are. But the amazing resurgence of wild turkeys in the last 40 years is also testimony to the changing landscape of northern New England, silent testimony to the primacy of habitat, and a game management success story.

Though native to New England, beginning in the mid-1800s, wild turkeys were extirpated pretty much region-wide. That is because New England’s settler-farmers cut down virtually all the turkeys’ habitat – the forests.

Over the course of a century and more, the forests returned to most of New England’s hillsides and mountains. With proper turkey habitat restored, people began to think about returning the birds themselves to the forest.

In the winter of 1969-70, the Vermont Department of Fish & Game worked with New York to trap 17 turkeys. Those birds were released in Pawlet. The following winter, 14 more birds were trapped in New York and released in Hubbardton.

The turkeys not only survived, but thrived, and soon a breeding population was established. Vermont’s restored forests were an ideal environment. By 1973, those 31 initial turkeys had successfully reproduced, and the Vermont population was estimated at some 600 birds. A turkey-hunting season established in the spring of 1973 marked the first time turkeys had been hunted in New England in more than a century.

In the past three or four years, turkey numbers seem to have climbed even more steeply. In addition to the restoration of the forests, milder winters and grain available in harvested farm fields have helped the turkeys proliferate.

But the big flocks of turkeys have not pleased everyone. Some farmers have reported that turkeys are helping themselves to grain put out for cattle and making significant messes around their barns and pastures. A flock of a dozen or two dozen turkeys can leave a lot of turkey manure.

But, all things considered, the return of the wild turkey to Vermont has to be counted as one of the state Fish & Wildlife Department’s biggest success stories.

Vermont birds have been shipped to Maine and Ontario – even to Germany’s Black Forest - to establish breeding populations in those places.

Most of these birds will not be on Thanksgiving tables this year. Wild turkeys, unlike their domesticated turkey cousins, are pretty smart. So this Thanksgiving, those hunters lucky enough to have bagged a wild turkey can be especially thankful – and so can the many thousands of wild turkeys who have escaped!
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