Turkey and Thanksgiving go hand in hand, as most American families gather for a Thanksgiving dinner whose centerpiece is a turkey—a tradition dating back over 200 years, even before President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863.The turkey dinner is so prevalent that the holiday is also referred to as “turkey day.” And, today, many communities kick off the holiday with a morning running race, with a popular walking option, called the “turkey trot.”
Whether or not turkey was on the menu for the 1621 celebration at Plymouth, Massachusetts, is not clear: A firsthand account of the foods served at that dinner mentions “wildfowl,” a term that includes geese, ducks, turkeys and possibly the now-extinct heath hen that was common along the southern part of coastal New England. But the main meat course would have been venison, prepared from the five deer brought by the Pilgrims’ neighbors and guests, the Wampanoags, for that feast.
It was not very long ago when Long Islanders’ only sighting of a turkey was the once-a-year look at the featherless roaster prepared for Thanksgiving. Today, East End residents have regular encounters with the wilder, sleeker, walking-and-talking version of the beast consumed on turkey day.
How did that come about?
With the exception of the semi-domesticated turkeys that could be found at North Sea, Connetquot State Park, Shelter Island, Wantagh and several other locations on Long Island at various times since at least the 1960s, the wild version of the turkey had been missing from our landscape for over 150 years.
A combination of hunting and logging eliminated the wild turkey from the entire state in the mid-1840s. By the early 1900s, it was eliminated from most of its former range in the eastern United States. A small population that survived in northern Pennsylvania was the source of the flock that reappeared in western New York in 1948.
That reappearance sparked interest in restoring turkeys to other parts of the state. One might assume that, with changes in hunting regulations, this prolific breeder—a female turkey will lay 10 to 12 eggs per clutch— would quickly recolonize its former range. However, along with pheasant, grouse and quail, turkeys are gallinaceous birds, whose muscles and limbs are designed for living on the ground, where they poke around in the leaf litter foraging for seeds, mast, and a variety of plant matter and insects. The protein-packed insects are especially important fare for the newly hatched young, called poults, who can be seen foraging in fields and meadows in small flocks in summer under the watchful eyes of their moms, or hens.
Through evolution, flight muscles were sacrificed for the development of large and strong legs. Most times, the long-legged turkey will run to escape danger. And it can move: Top speed is around 18 mph, a rate at which it could finish the Boston Marathon in 1.5 hours and beat even the fastest Kenyan runner by a whopping 40 minutes. Some would say that’s flying!
Wild turkeys can fly, but they are not capable of sustained flights of much more than one mile and generally take to the air to cover only a hundred yards or so. Every evening they make a short flight up into a suitable tree to roost for the night, where they are safe from most predators.
So the return of the wild turkey required an assist. Between 1952 and 1960, over 3,000 turkeys were raised on a State Department of Environmental Conservation game farm and released in suitable habitats around the state. Unfortunately, most of the game-farm birds were not wild enough to survive.
One exception was on Gardiners Island. There, descendants of a flock of game-farm birds that were imported from Virginia in the 1950s survive today. Their success may have hinged on predator control and feeding strategies that are easier to implement on an isolated island.
Following the failure of the game-farm stock, New York State began a program of trapping and relocating wild turkeys from the population established in the western part of the state. This is done by baiting fields with corn in the winter, when food supplies are least abundant, and shooting a large net over the flock at the appropriate moment.
Mike Scheibel of The Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve filled me in on some of the history of turkey reintroductions here on Long Island.
In 1993 and 1994, 49 wild turkeys from upstate New York were released here; 25 birds went to Hither Woods in Montauk, and 24 to South Haven County Park on the Carmen’s River. The South Haven population quickly expanded south into the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge and north to the Brookhaven National Laboratory property.
In the spring of 2004, 29 wild turkeys were released in East Hampton at the Grace Estate Preserve in Northwest, and the Jacobs Farm Preserve in Springs.
The mosaic of woodland preserves and farm fields, our formidable mast (acorn, beech, hickory) crop, and our mild winters seem to be well-suited to this prolific species; offspring of these reintroductions have spread far and wide. Over the 12 years since the last release, that total of 78 birds released on Long Island has swelled to an estimated population of 3,000 gobblers.
By 2009, Long Island’s wild turkey population was deemed robust enough to justify a limited hunting season. As is the case with our local deer numbers, hunters do not seem to have made a dent in our turkey flocks, and their population is still increasing. Last year, based on the results of statewide surveys that indicated an estimated 30-percent decline in turkey numbers outside of Long Island over the past 20 years, the hunting season was shortened upstate, while Long Island’s season was slightly expanded.
There are a number of factors that influence turkey numbers; among them are predators and weather. Gil Bergen at Connetquot State Park found that predation by red foxes had drastically impacted the flock there. At one point some years ago, when the fox population had peaked in its cycle, it knocked turkey numbers down from 60 birds to three.
The foxes, weighing in at 10 to 15 pounds, had learned to take not only the poults but the big twenty pound toms as well. According to Gil, fox predation on the toms is most successful when the latter is preoccupied with attracting hens in the spring.
Other turkey predators here on Long Island include hawks, owls, raccoon, fox, feral cats and domestic dogs. Most of these prey on the young poults who are very vulnerable during their two-week-long flightless period after hatching. Eggs are also heavily predated. Local nest predators include raccoon, fox, opossums, skunks, feral cats, crows and domestic dogs.
The northern limits of the range of the wild turkey in North America is limited by the amount and extent of snow cover. Snow depths greater than 1 foot, and soft snows of as little as 6 inches, pose challenges for the wild turkey both in terms of getting around on foot and locating food under the snow pack. Following a big snowfall, turkeys can hunker down in their tree roosts for up to two weeks without feeding while waiting for the snowpack to diminish.
A 12-year study in New York found that wild turkey populations can tolerate huge winter losses, including successive years of high winter mortality, and recover completely within three years. This surprised me. How do they do that?
Their high reproductive rate is the key. Females are best at surviving severe winters, and many females can mate with the few surviving males, producing clutches of a dozen eggs each. This is when the real population test begins. Reproductive success is heavily influenced by spring and early summer weather, with cold, wet weather impacting incubation and hypothermia among the chicks. Also, incubating hens can produce a stronger odor when wet, making them more vulnerable to predators.
We not only had a very mild winter last year, but we had an exceptionally warm and dry spring and summer this year. And we’ve had back-to-back “mast years,” or unusually large crops of acorns, hickories and beech nuts, in the fall of 2015 and 2016. With the local red fox population rebounding but still low, turkey numbers may continue to rise.
Not everyone is happy with our growing population of wild turkeys. But most of the complaints I’ve heard stem from people who couldn’t resist giving the birds a handout … or two … and soon the word was out: “Hey, Tom and Jake, let’s go hang out on Stan’s deck and get some of that delicious corn from Agway!” According to Stan, he can’t go outside without being accosted by turkeys looking for a treat. And his deck is 2 inches deep in turkey scat.
Please keep the wild in wild turkey and other wildlife: Do not feed them.
Mike Bottini is the outdoors columnist for The Press.