“Gobble, gobble, gobble!” The mating call of the wild turkey has become synonymous with the activity most people associate with the bird: eating Thanksgiving dinner. However, this large, vocal bird has a much bigger story to tell; one filled with both hope and uncertainty.
Perhaps the reason our culture’s concept of wild turkeys seems to start and stop at the dinner table is because for decades the bird was seldom seen in the wilds of North America. Thanks to loss of habitat and its featured spot on dinner menus, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) was hunted to near-extinction; by the 1930s, its population hovered at only 30,000 individuals in the United States. In the 1940s, however, an effort began to reintroduce the bird, with people releasing farm turkeys into the wild (they did not survive).
Soon, people were trapping wild turkeys in one area and relocating them to others, and throughout the decades this trap-and-release effort led to one of the country’s greatest comeback stories. With their numbers now 7 million strong, wild turkeys strut and gobble in 49 states (excluding Alaska) and parts of Canada and Mexico.
In Ohio, the wild turkey had completely vanished by 1904, but its dramatic return has led to sightings of turkey flocks in parks, along roads and even in some suburban backyards. Wild turkeys now inhabit all 88 Ohio counties, with a 2013 population estimate of 180,000. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources maps out the best areas to view the birds, with the greatest numbers of turkeys in Ohio’s eastern and southern counties.
Even if you don’t travel to a wildlife area, you may come across a flock in your own neighborhood. You’re likely to see them in open spots near tree cover, as they prefer to live in forests interspersed with clearings. With their large size (standing 3 to 4 feet tall, and weighing up to 24 pounds), variety of calls (ranging from gobbles and clucks to purrs and hissing), and tendency to travel in flocks of five to 50 birds, wild turkeys can make for a dramatic sighting.
Turkeys have an unfair reputation as lacking in smarts, but in fact they have a keen grasp of their surroundings; their senses of sight and hearing are acute, and they show a strong ability to remember precise locations. Perhaps the most notorious myth about them—that they will drown in a rainstorm due to gaping skyward with their mouths open—is false. The myth is possibly due to an inherited condition that causes some turkeys to display abnormal behaviors, such as staring upward.
Despite their appeal and remarkable comeback story, the challenges facing wild turkeys aren’t over yet. Over the last couple of decades throughout the southeastern United States, booming turkey populations have been in mysterious decline. In Mississippi, for instance, the number of turkeys has fallen from a high of 410,000 in the 1980s to a present-day population of only 270,000. And Arkansas has seen its turkey population drop by a potential 65 percent since 2003.
Scientists are attributing the vanishing of the turkeys to a number of possible factors, ranging from loss of habitat to an increase in predators such as raccoons. The “wet hen hypothesis” suggests that repeated cool, damp springs throughout the South in recent years may have created ideal conditions for predators to sniff out nesting hens. Some suggest that the decline in population is merely a sign that turkey populations have leveled off after a period of rapid growth.
Regardless of the cause, there is no question that the turkeys’ habitat is diminishing, and that new weather patterns are bringing new challenges to their life cycle. By studying the dip in turkey populations, scientists may find new information to help other species facing similar declines. And by working to preserve the turkeys’ remaining habitat, a myriad of other species also benefit.
Whether your Thanksgiving dinner is turkey or tofu, take a moment to reflect on these extraordinary birds. With their unique charms and significance in our cultural history, it’s worth our trouble to do everything we can to prevent a second disappearance of the wild turkey. –Meredith Southard
An animal lover since she could shriek the word “doggie,” Meredith Southard has written for national and statewide publications on topics such as wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, conservation dogs, and the animals of Ohio’s wetlands. On warm spring nights she can be found traipsing around vernal pools with a flashlight, looking for salamanders and frogs.