In honor of Thanksgiving, the premiere of PBS‘s “My Life as a Turkey” and the proliferation of turkey sightings across Staten Island (what are they plotting?), MetroFocus spoke with Doug Little, a senior research biologist at the National Wild Turkey Federation, about the history and future of these unflappable wild birds who seem to love New York.
Q: What’s the difference between wild turkeys and those most of us eat for Thanksgiving?
A: Behaviorally, the domestic turkeys (the ones we eat) simply do not have the survival skills to make it outside of captive situations where their typical predators exist. Some people eat wild turkey for Thanksgiving because someone in their family successfully harvested one during the spring or fall hunting season. That being said, there are several strains of domestic turkeys that have a wide range of appearances. Some domestic strains look closer to wild turkeys.
Q: How related are the species?
A: Mexican wild turkeys are the ancestors of all of our domestic varieties. Domestic turkeys had their beginning when eggs from wild birds of Mexico were collected and hatched. It is estimated that they were domesticated some 2,000 years ago, perhaps by the Aztecs. Then Europeans in Mexico brought them back to Europe. From Europe, they were brought back here to North America in the early 1600s, first in Virginia.
Q: How long have wild turkeys been present in New York, as well as North America?
A: Wild turkeys are native to North America and to New York State. They were found throughout New York south of the Adirondacks. And when European settlers arrived, they were present in what are now 39 states.
Intensive logging and farming and unregulated market hunting contributed to the decline of wild turkeys and by the mid-1800s they were in very low numbers or extirpated from New York.
To help wild turkeys avoid extinction in New York State in the 1950s, the state wildlife agency (then called the New York Conservation Department) raised turkeys. About 3,100 wild turkeys were raised and released throughout the state in what was considered good habitat for wild turkeys. But these turkeys did not have the survival skills to make it in the wild. That program ended in 1959. Release of captive-reared turkeys has not been allowed since then.
A new approach was needed. So, the state wildlife agency began trapping wild turkeys in 1959 and transferring them to other locations in New York State with a suitable habitat. After New York’s program proved successful, Allegany State Park allowed state wildlife agency staff to assist with restoration efforts in Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey, and the Canadian province of Ontario. Allegany State Park has continued to play a major role in restoration efforts of wild turkey populations beyond New York State.
WATCH VIDEO:“My Life as a Turkey” is a documentary about Joe Hutto, a man who raised a group of wild turkey hatchlings to adulthood. Video courtesy of PBS.
Q: How has their range changed over time?
A: Wild turkeys are native to North America. Their numbers declined with colonization and they almost became extinct by the end of the 19th century. Remnant populations of wild turkeys survived in the most rugged, inaccessible areas where forests were left intact. The speed of forest clearing and unregulated market hunting were the most significant factors in their decline. Today we know that active forest management that creates different age classes of forest and open fields can be ideal wild turkey habitat. And state and federal wildlife agencies and law enforcement officers, along with nonprofit organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation and our volunteers, have helped ensure successful restoration of wild turkeys to suitable habitats. Scientific-based wild turkey hunting opportunities in both spring and fall throughout their range are carefully managed by wildlife agencies across the country.
Q: What was the relationship of American settlers with the turkey? How has it changed overtime? Was it different from the relationship indigenous populations had with the bird?
A: The domestic turkey was first brought to the U.S. in Virginia in the early 1600s. Massachusetts received turkeys from Europe in 1629. They were raised on a relatively small scale until 1900 when the industry began to expand. Raising turkeys became a major operation in the early 1940s. As for the wild turkey, early American settlers exploited wild turkey populations largely because there were no laws or regulations limiting their harvest. That factor combined with large-scale landscape clearing for forest products and conversion of land for agriculture resulted in significant declines in wild turkey numbers. Over time, wildlife have benefited from the establishment of state wildlife agencies, which are staffed with professional biologists and law enforcement officers. These agencies have established game laws and hunting seasons to closely manage wild turkey populations to ensure relatively stable populations. Sportsmen and women help fund these agencies by purchasing hunting licenses and through excise taxes (Pittman-Robertson Act) on sporting arms and ammunition.
Some have suggested that the bird’s name comes from its yelp call, which can sound like ‘turk, turk.’
Hunters are the heroes of conservation these days since they contribute the majority of the financial resources that allow wildlife agencies to manage populations, conduct research, purchase public lands and enhance habitat through active management of our forests and fields.
The wild turkey was a major food source for many Native American tribes. However, there were customs of some Native American tribes that discouraged eating wild turkeys. Throughout North America wild turkeys were used for clothing including coats, dresses, robes and blankets. Parts of wild turkeys were also used for tools such as spoons made from bones, feathers used as fletchings on arrows and spurs were used as arrow tips.
Q: How did the turkey get its name?
A: According to “The Wild Turkey – Biology and Management,” some have suggested that the bird’s name comes from its yelp call, which can sound like “turk, turk.” Another possible suggestion in the literature is that the Hebrew word “tukki,” which also means “peacock,” was given by poultry merchants that introduced the bird to Europe.
Q: Why do local turkeys seem to like New York City?
A: I hear about turkeys in New York City periodically but I don’t know if these are truly wild turkeys. Some wild animals in every population disperse from their natal range (where they were born or hatched) as a mechanism to expand their range and increase genetic diversity. Dispersing wildlife follow wooded habitats along streams and highways, occasionally appearing in unexpected places. When a young, dispersing animal makes a wrong turn and appears in an urban center it makes news. This phenomenon is not restricted to wild turkeys. Coyotes, black bears and deer occasionally appear in places that are simply unsuitable for them as they disperse. At times, the animal can make a course correction but sometimes wildlife professionals must get involved to capture and remove the animal.
Q: What are some of the best places to go if you want to see wild turkeys in the New York City area?
A: There is a very strong wild turkey population in eastern Suffolk County. A drive through Brookhaven, Riverhead and east toward Montauk will typically result in sightings of wild turkeys. Daytime sightings in fields are more regular on rainy days. Wild turkeys tend to use open areas during rainy weather mainly because rain reduces their ability to hear predators. Wild turkeys have tremendous eyesight so they rely on that sense to keep them safe during rainy weather.
Q: There has been a recent wild turkey population explosion in Staten Island. Why?
A: The birds on Staten Island are not true wild turkeys. Close inspection of feathering and other characteristics of those birds indicate domestic traits. Because the birds on Staten Island originated from domestic stock they should be referred to as feral rather than wild.
Q: What triggered the influx, how are locals reacting, and what’s currently being done to keep these turkey numbers in check?
A: The turkeys have been on the island for about eight or 10 years and, by all accounts, their origin stems from a release by an individual. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has surveyed residents to determine their attitudes toward the turkeys and will consider the input when evaluating how to manage the situation. As might be expected, there is a wide range of opinions among the residents regarding the Staten Island turkey flock. DEC staff and local borough council representatives have discussed the issue of growing feral turkey numbers. This is a local community issue and the agency and local government are working on community based solutions.
Kate Fulton conducted this interview via email. It has been edited and condensed.