The Wild Turkey doesn’t get a lot of love outside of November, despite being one of the largest and most distinctive birds in North America. Often associated with big meals and handprint drawings, versus beauty and birdsong, its name is even slang for being foolish or a failure. Unless you’ve been terrorized by one, you may not pay the turkey much mind.
For a bird that’s one of America’s most successful conservation stories that feels, well, foolish.
It may be hard to believe if you regularly see flocks in fields or aggressively roaming your neighborhood, but the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) was at risk of becoming “as extinct as the dodo,” as Gaston Fay wrote in an 1884 Harper’s Weekly piece. Before European settlers arrived, millions of native wild turkeys lived in North America. By the 1600s, due to unrestricted hunting and habitat loss, they were disappearing from New England; the last ones were recorded in the region in the 1800s. Numbers continued to drop across the country (despite Fay’s 1884 warning), and by the 1930s as few as 30,000 to 200,000 wild turkeys remained in the entire United States.
So, from where did all the turkeys we see today—in woods, in fields, along roadsides, in backyards, and even on city streets—come from? An act of Congress.
Signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Pittman–Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 imposed an 11 percent tax on firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment with proceeds distributed to state governments for wildlife management and habitat protection. The act continues to fund state projects today.
Some of these funds went to capturing and transferring wild turkeys for reintroductions across the country. In Maine, where I live, attempts to reintroduce the birds started in 1942. However, it wasn’t until 1977 and 1978, when the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife obtained 41 turkeys from Vermont and released them in the towns of York and Eliot, that they began to reestablish. Turkeys from those populations, plus some from Connecticut, were later trapped and released in other Maine counties to further their spread.
And spread they did. With the help of similar programs across the country, wild turkeys went from nearly disappearing a century ago to recovering and now occurring in every state in the Lower 48. In fact, they recovered and adapted so well that turkey-human conflicts in urban and suburban areas inspire tips for dealing with aggressive turkeys. (Most important: do not feed wild turkeys.)
Turkeys can inspire a range of feelings: amusement, interest, frustration, indifference, hunger. I find turkeys, like this unconcerned flock I photographed a few weeks ago, oddly beautiful and captivating. Their feathers can be radiant, their tiny heads remind me of dinosaurs, and in this time of mass extinction it’s remarkable that in my 40-something lifetime, turkeys have gone from nearly wiped out to thriving. Across the country there are estimated 7 million turkeys today.
It may not be conventionally beautiful, but the wild turkey is an everyday example of conservation success, and it’s strutting around right in our own backyards.
National Success? Yes. National Bird? No.
Ever heard that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird of the United States? Not quite. While Franklin did praise the turkey as “a bird of courage” and a “true original native of America” in a 1784 letter to his daughter, he never suggested it be the national bird. The Great Seal of the United States had already been adopted in 1782. Franklin simply didn’t like the Bald Eagle, “a bird of bad moral character” and “a rank coward” too lazy to fish for itself. In fact, Franklin was specifically complaining to his daughter about an emblem on a Society of the Cincinnati medal, and he was not displeased that its eagle looked more like a turkey, as it was “a much more respectable bird.” Read the letter.
More Turkey Talk:
- Wild Turkey Overview (Cornell University’s All About Birds)
- Wild Turkey Info (Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife)
- Wildlife Restoration Program (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
- Keep Me Wild: Wild Turkey (California Department of Fish and Wildlife)