Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Let Us Give Thanks for Wild Turkey and Uncle Sam

Wild Turkey Feathers. This is a repost from Nov. 2008

Let us give thanks to the Wild Turkey, America's largest ground-nesting bird.

Back when my grandfather was born, the Wild Turkey was teetering on the edge of extinction. Today we have more Wild Turkeys in America's woods than existed in pre-Columbian times.

How is that possible?

Good question. But before we get there, let's dwell a little bit longer on the miracle.

You see, it generally requires a lot of forest -- 2,000 acres or more -- to maintain the kind of food crop and cover that Wild Turkey need to thrive.

The reason for this is that in the dead of winter, Wild Turkey depend on acorns and other nuts and seed for survival. This food is only produced in abundance by mature hardwood trees -- oak, beech, dogwood, cherry and gum.

So what's the big deal? We have a lot of forest in America.

True enough now, but not as true a century ago in the Eastern U.S. and much of the Midwest. Back around 1900, virtually all the big stands of large trees had been logged out in the Eastern U.S. and across much of the Midwest as well. As the trees vanished, Wild Turkey populations plummeted.

Wild Turkey populations were further pushed to oblivion by rapid improvements in gun accuracy, and weak game laws that had yet to catch up to the changing dynamics of landscape and technology.

By 1910, there were fewer than 30,000 Wild Turkeys left in America.

Then, an amazing turnaround occurred. That turnaround started with passage of the Lacey Act in 1900. The Lacey Act ended commercial hunting of wild animals.

Commercial hunting is not sport or recreational hunting -- it is the opposite of that. In commercial hunting, the goal is not having a fun day in the field to fill your own freezer with wild meat, but a full year in the field to fill the freezers of 10,000 people whose primary concern is the price per pound.

To put it simply, commercial hunting is to sport hunting what gill-netting is to fly fishing. One comes with a factory ship attached; the other a simple wicker creel.

No single action has done more to improve the status of American wildlife than passage of the Lacey Act. Prior to its passage, commercial hunters bled the land white, shooting everything that moved. Wild game merchants sold pigeons for a penny apiece, and ducks for only a little more.

Hunters, using cannons loaded with shrapnel, would shoot 400 ducks in a day in Maryland's Eastern Shore marshes, while market deer hunters would set up bait stations near roads and shoot 20 deer in a night.

The Lacey Act helped put an end to this kind of unrestricted slaughter of American wildlife, but it did nothing to restore badly degraded habitat.

Wildlife without habitat is a zoo.

Habitat without wildlife is scenery.

America -- still a young nation -- remembered when it had both, and it wanted it all back.

The second steps on the road to wildlife recovery occurred between 1905 and 1911. It was during this period that Theodore Roosevelt set aside 42 million acres as National Forest and created an additional 53 National Wildlife Refuges as well.

It was also during this period that Congress passed the Weeks Act authorizing the U.S. government to buy up millions of acres of mountain land in the East that had been chopped clean of its forest in order to obtain wood for railroad ties, paper, firewood and timber.

With the Depression of the 1930s, and rapid migration of millions of people from the rural countryside to the city, more and more marginal farmland began to revert back to woody plots.

Spontaneous forest regeneration in Appalachia, along with tree-planting by the U.S. Government-funded Civilian Conservation Corps, helped restore more than 6 million acres of hardwood forests on denuded land purchased under the Weeks Act.

In 1937, the Wildlife Restoration Act (aka, the Pittman-Robertson Act) initiated a new tax on rifles, shotguns and ammunition, with this dedicated revenue going to help fund wildlife conservation.

Pittman-Robertson Act funds were used to purchase millions of acres of public hunting lands and to fund wildlife reintroduction efforts for Whitetail Deer, Canada Geese, Elk, Beaver, Wood Duck, Black Bear, and Wild Turkey.

In the case of Wild Turkey, initial restocking efforts were not successful. Turkey eggs were collected from wild birds, and the poults that were hatched were released into the wild. Unfortunately, these pen-raised birds were quickly decimated by predation and starvation.

New tactics were tried. A few adult Wild Turkeys were caught in wooden box traps intended for deer (picture of deer trap at right). These Wild Turkey were then moved to suitable habitat, but these adults birds also perished under the onslaught of predation.

The reintroduction of Wild Turkeys was beginning to look hopeless.

After World War II, game managers began to experiment again. This time, cannon nets -- large nets propelled by black powder rocket charges -- were used. These nets enveloped entire turkey flocks at once.

Moving an entire flock of Wild Turkeys seemed to work. The first few flocks that were relocated out of the Ozarks (the last stronghold of the Wild Turkey) began to thrive, in part because regrown forest provided more food stock for the birds to live on. The millions of acres of mountain land purchased in 1911 under the Weeks Act had, by now, become large stands of maturing hardwoods in the National Forest system.

Turkeys caught in a cannon net.

Systematic restocking of Wild Turkey continued through the 1950s and 60s, and by 1973, when the National Wild Turkey Federation was formed, the population of wild birds in the U.S. had climbed to 1.3 million.

With the creation of the National Wild Turkey Federation, more sportsmen and private land owners were recruited for habitat protection and Wild Turkey reintroduction.

Today, the range of the American Wild Turkey is more extensive than ever, and the total Wild Turkey population has climbed to 5.5 million birds.

Wild turkey hunting is now a billion-dollar-a-year industry, with 2.6 million hunters harvesting about 700,000 birds a year.

And so, when we are giving Thanksgiving this Thursday, let us remember not only the Wild Turkey and America's hunting heritage, but also such "big government" programs as the Weeks Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Pittman-Robertson Act, the National Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Clean Water Act.

Without Uncle Sam -- and your tax dollars -- much of America's wildlife would now be gone.

It was Uncle Sam -- and Mother Nature's natural fecundity -- that brought back the Wild Turkey, the Beaver, the Elk, the Whitetail Deer, the Black Bear, and the Bald Eagle. Ted Nugent and the National Rifle Association were nowhere to be seen, and neither were Bass Pro Shops or salesmen pushing Yamaha ATVs.

So next time you are in forest or field, remember Uncle Sam, and thank God for Mother Nature. Whether you know it or not, your hunting and fishing has always depended on both of them.



Caveat said...

Well researched, excellent post.

I saw a couple of turkeys near here a few weeks ago, always nice to see wild animals near where you live.

I'm glad there are so many of them now.

btw I always assumed they were opportunistic and would eat carrion as well as preferred foods, based on their bald heads and necks.

Is that incorrect?

PBurns said...

Turkeys are straight vegetarians along with a few bugs.


Anonymous said...

From the Pennsylvania Game Commission:

Food- In spring, turkeys eat tender greens, shoots, tubers, left-over nuts and early insects. As the weather warms up, they eat more insects, including grasshoppers, walking-sticks, beetles, weevils, dragonflies and larvae. They also consume spiders, harvestmen, ticks, millipedes, centipedes, snails and slugs. But even in summer, a majority of the diet (perhaps 90 percent) is vegetable. A wide variety of plant species are eaten, as well as a number of plant parts, including fruits, seeds, seedheads, tubers, roots, bulbs, stems, leaves, flowers and buds.

In fall, turkeys eat mast (beechnuts, acorns); fruits (dogwood, grape, cherry, gum, thornapple); and seeds (grasses and sedges, ash, corn, oats, weeds). During winter, they rely on seeds, nuts, and fruits left over from autumn, and on green plants, crustaceans and insect larvae found in and around spring seeps where ground water emerges along a hillside or in a flat. Temperature of this water is above freezing, so the seeps remain open all winter, providing food for turkeys and other wildlife.


M.L. Miller said...

Many upland birds rely on a heavy diet of insects as chicks for protein. Turkeys are very opportunistic and will eat a lot of insects as they are encountered, but I have never heard of them eating carrion.

I once shot a (fall) hen turkey that had 3 salamanders in its crop. Always interesting to check the crops of the gamebirds you shoot.

Retrieverman said...

Spontaneous regeneration of Appalachian forests happened because of the industrial economy in the Midwest. Industrial jobs that paid union wages were far better than trying to make a go of what is really marginal farmland.

In Ohio, the joke was that in West Virginia the school children were taught "reading, writing, and Route 21." Route 21 is now I-77 to Canton, Akron, and Cleveland.

No more farmers on the hillsides, ridges, and river bottoms meant that the forests could grow back.

Now, this has been good for just about every species in Appalachia, including black bears, white-tailed deer, and wild turkeys. However, some creatures were losers in the bargain. I have never seen a wild bobwhite in West Virginia, but the old-timers say they were once quite numerous.

And if you buy bobwhites from a breeder to stock on your land, most of the ones in captivity have become so tame that really most domestic chickens have better survival instincts.

In West Virginia, we very much celebrate the wild turkey. West Virginia was one of the first states to have a full recovery of the bird, and our state has used them to bargain for other wildlife, like the fishers that can now be trapped for their fur. Those came from New Hampshire. The state traded some wild turkeys for a few pekan.

I often see scenes like that painting below, although it is usually more than one hen and usually dozen or more poults traveling through the pasture. Because it was rainy and cool this spring, I assumed that there would be few turkey poults. However, I was wrong.

Retrieverman said...

Turkey vultures eat carrion. In fact, that's about all they eat.

If you aren't used to seeing wild turkeys, it is kind of easy to confuse the two (although I never have).

sfox said...

I would suspect that one factor in wild turkey recovery is the expansion of their habitat by human introduction to places that they had never California. We have them in the inland, hotter areas of Humboldt County, which is on the coast about five hours north of California and I've seen them inland south of San Francisco too.

California also has introduced chukar partridge and ring-necked pheasant.

And then there was the big motorcycle gang of starlings that took over the backyard for awhile this morning.

FrogDogz said...

Stupid turkeys made me late for work this morning. They are as common in my area as crows, only dumber.

This morning, about 11 of them leaped a hedge and landed in the middle of the road, right in front of me. They milled around, and scratched at the gravel. I honked, a few of them scattered the rest sort of stared at me. Ten minutes of this, and I finally revved the car at them. Still nada. It took a fast moving UPS truck coming from the opposite direction to get them all off of the road.

Stupid turkeys. Tasty, though.

Gina said...

"Modern Marvels" last night was a replay about turkeys. The first half a prettied-up version of industrial production, pure "isn't this cool?" BS.

The second half, however, was a fantastic look at the re-introduction of wild turkeys. Hooray, and it made me want to join the wild turkey conservancy group.

Although, geez, in NorCal you can barely back out of your driveway without waiting for wild turkeys to let you by.