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History of The Wild Turkey | The Greatest Conservation Success Story The US Has Ever Seen

History of The Wild Turkey | The Greatest Conservation Success Story The US Has Ever Seen
February 8, 2022

By Paul Campbell From Ohio Outdoors Podcast

“For the Truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.” 

-Benjamin Franklin

The Wild Turkey's Wild History

In a letter to his daughter in 1784, Benjamin Franklin famously criticized the use of the Bald Eagle as the symbol for the Great Seal. Franklin compared the Eagle to a robber, too lazy to fish for himself, willing to watch from a dead tree as other birds worked hard to catch fish. The Eagle would hide in a nearby tree then swoop in and steal the prized fish from the honest bird. Franklin went as far to call the Bald Eagle “a rank coward”. Franklin’s displeasure for the Bald Eagle is well known. His admiration for the Wild Turkey would create a mystic and wonder that still follows the majestic bird to this day. 

Benjamin Franklin never actually advocated to use the Wild Turkey as the symbol of America, however that is a widely believed tale. He only compared the “noble” Wild Turkey to the “lousy” Bald Eagle. With these tall tales and slight modifications of history, the lore of America’s greatest bird, the Wild Turkey, was born. Since the 1780s the Bald Eagle has been a Buzzard with a good PR department, protected and revered across the United States. In the centuries that followed the Wild Turkey would face massive habitat destruction and complete extinction across most of its range. The story of the Wild Turkey is complicated. It is also the greatest Conservation success story the nation has ever seen. 

Why We Get to Hunt Turkeys

To fully appreciate what we as modern hunters experience every Spring, chasing Wild Turkeys across 49 states, we must understand how far the Turkey has come in the last 90 years. The dedication, hard work and foresight of past generations is the primary reason we get to hunt Wild Turkeys today. 

In the 1930s wildlife biologist estimate that across the entire country there were roughly 30,000 Wild Turkeys. Market hunting and massive deforestation had taken its toll on populations and habitat. In the Midwest and New England states the Turkey had disappeared entirely. Only in the most wild and rugged places of Appalachia, the most remote swamps on the South and in the American west could small populations be found. In the 1920s many states cross the country were just starting to form the organizations that would eventually become the government entities that would set wildlife management policy and enact and enforce wildlife laws that we know today. Several of these organizations were started by recreational hunters that noticed the population declines and wanted to do their part to protect the resource and wild animals for generations to come. 

In the years following World War II biologist around the country turned their attention to reestablishing Wild Turkey populations across the country. Biologists across the South would collect Wild Turkey eggs and raise the young birds in pens. Once mature, the birds would be released into the wild in various areas. Although the intentions were admirable, the pen rearing, and farm raised programs were miserable failures and were eventually discontinued by 1960. Undeterred, the biologist loyal to Wild Turkeys continued to develop new methods to bolster wild populations across the country. 

Progress was slow and inconsistent at first. In 1951 a biologist named Duff Holbrook would change the course of the Wild Turkey in this country forever. In a remote National Forest in South Carolina, Duff would become the first person to successfully capture a live Wild Turkey. Using a cannon-fired net designed to catch Ducks, Duff caught one Wild Turkey hen. By 1957 Duff had captured and relocated 241 Eastern Wild Turkeys. This method of catching Wild Turkeys spread across the country and biologist across the nation were able to fine tune the method and start to reestablish populations. By 1959, 31 states were actively catching and relocating Turkeys. This method of Turkey conservation continues to this day, most recently in January of 2022 a flock of Maine Wild Turkeys were relocated to the state of Texas. 

By the mid-1970s estimated Wild Turkey populations across the country had stabilized to around 1.4 million Turkeys (a 4,000% increase over 40 years!). With populations growing to huntable numbers by 1975, 39 states had a Spring Wild Turkey hunting season, an increase from only 20 states with a season in 1958. In 1973 the National Wild Turkey Federation was created to continue to promote the Conservation of the Wild Turkey across the continent. 

Making Sure We Get to Keep Hunting Turkeys

As Turkey hunting gains in popularity the Wild Turkey is faced once again with a new set of challenges. Habitat loss to urban expansion, farming and industrial use has resulted in thousands of acres of habitat loss across the country. Diseases that affect both the Wild Turkey and their food sources have increased and strained populations. Many parts of the country have experienced historical flooding and cold wet Spring weather the last decade. Weather impacts the poult (a baby turkey) survival more so than any other factor, even more than predators and habitat loss. 

The story of the Wild Turkey is both cautionary and triumphant. With estimates of around 7 million Turkeys in 49 states the reintroduction of the Wild Turkey to the wild places of America is the greatest conservation success our nation has ever seen. We as hunters must never take that success for granted. The days of doom and gloom being the sole motivator for hunters to participate in conservation efforts must end. As hunters, we should be excited about our role in the continued success of the Wild Turkey. Hunters, government organizations, and conservation groups across this country never lose sight of what the goal is for Wild Turkeys. One hundred years from now I want hunters to be able to stand on any ridge in any patch of forest on a beautiful Spring day and hear the thundering boom of a Tom gobbling on a limb. Like Benjamin Franklin, I want the Noble Wild Turkey to thrive for decades after I’m gone from this earth. For that to happen we must never forget the progress we have made and never let up on the energy we put into the conservation of the Wild Turkey. 

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