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Wild WNY / A resilient native bird

Wild turkeys are strutting their stuff thanks to vigilant conservation

Turkeys once nearly disappeared from New York state.


Disturbing news about widespread bird loss in the US (see here) makes it all the more important to celebrate the birds we’ve grown to know and love year round in Western New York. One familiar species is undoubtedly the wild turkey, which can be spotted in wilder areas of the city—Forest Lawn, less-traveled parts of the waterfront, the urban prairies of the East Side—and throughout the suburbs, especially Amherst and Tonawanda.


Thanks to the efforts of New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), turkeys have made a big comeback locally. They had vanished from the landscape by the mid-twentieth century, thanks to their popularity as game birds, so, throughout the US, turkey releases were conducted annually. By the 1960s, the birds had rebounded and established breeding populations. By 1996, it was thought there were as many as ten million, a pre-Columbus number. It’s no longer necessary to perform annual releases, but the DEC conducts a survey each summer to assess the stability of the turkey population. According to Spree’s wildlife columnist, Gerry Rising, “They have had a slight downturn, their numbers decreasing to a recent low in 2011, according to the DEC, but recovering a bit after that.”


The species, Meleagris gallopavo, is native to the Americas, but was brought to Europe by Spanish traders, whose shipping routes passed through Turkey—it’s thought that this is how the species got its common name.  When Europeans settled in America, they were thrilled to see these familiar birds running free, and took full advantage of such a convenient—and delicious—food source. The graceful animal they saw in the wild is a far cry from the overfed sphere of breast meat that winds up in supermarkets. Now there are restrictions on hunting: in New York, only two bearded turkeys (no hens) are allowed over the spring hunting season (May 1–30) and one of each sex is allowed during fall (October 19–November 1).


While the vision of a waddling turkey may lead one to think “easy prey,” not so fast. Turkey hunters can sit for long hours in blinds, waiting for the birds to show up. Turkeys easily sense humans and are known as one of the craftiest game birds in North America. As a hunter quoted in the New York Times said, “When you go out turkey hunting, the bird is really hunting you, so you are reversing the roles of nature. There are so many variables involved that it is a real challenge to get one.’’



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