Wild Turkey Renaissance

Ben Franklin’s choice for our national bird, the wild turkey (Meleagris Gallopavo) has not always had an easy time finding a place in its homeland.

Native to only North America, the wild turkey became popular game for early colonists, who found easy targets with the abundance of animals and birds in the New World. As the colonists began to stake territory and set up farms, villages and eventually cities, they destroyed the turkey’s crucial food and nesting sites in forests and waterways. Eventually, the industrial revolution polluted many of the country’s rivers, further reducing endangered flocks.

“Turkeys were hammered by wide-scale logging, illegal poaching and hunting, poor habitats—and even by the devastation of the Civil War and Great Depression, when food quality was sparse and the turkey was considered an easy catch and good eating,” says Robert Abernathy, director of agency programs at the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) in South Carolina.

But in 1987, the NWTF, together with state wildlife and federal agencies, corporate groups and private landowners, started the collaborative Target 2000 with the goal of restoring wild turkey populations by the turn of the century. “Now, there are turkeys where they haven’t been since before the settlement of Europeans, and within the last five years, their range has expanded to 46 percent of the U.S.,” says James Earl Kennamer, vice president of NWTF conservation programs.

Already, 7,000 turkeys have been relocated through the program. And Target 2000 hopes that its turkeys will be prolific, producing 25 new births over five years for every adult released.

In Connecticut, a successful program that began in 1973 has restored a wild turkey population that became extinct in the 1800s. “Mild winters and an abundant food supply has caused an explosion in the state’s wild turkey population,” says Jay Kaplan, director of the Roaring Brook Nature Reserve in Canton, Connecticut. “Today Connecticut turkeys are numbered in the thousands.”