Once gone, Thanksgiving Day staple now common in Northeast
Posted November 23
MONTPELIER, Vt. — Wild turkeys, once common across New England, are back after disappearing from the region in the 19th century and are now regularly spotted in rural fields, suburban neighborhoods and even the airspace above interstate highways.
The revival is considered one of the major wildlife restoration success stories, even making it into wildlife management textbooks, said Mark Scott, director of wildlife for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The revival of the birds in Vermont grew from the release of turkeys in Rutland County during the winters of 1969-70 and 1970-71. A total of 31 were released during that time. The state now has a population estimated at 45,000 to 50,000 birds from one end of the state to the other, Scott said.
And Vermont has helped other states in the region and beyond restore or build their populations, sending turkeys to places including Maine, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Canada and Germany.
"I think people like to see turkeys whether they hunt them or not," said Scott whose agency oversees Vermont's spring and fall turkey hunting seasons.
The turkey revival is not just a New England phenomenon.
Wild turkeys are now found in all U.S. states except Alaska, said Pete Muller, public relations manager for the National Wild Turkey Federation, which is trying to maintain and expand turkey habitats across the country.
"When you think about this particular time of year, Thanksgiving, most people will think of turkeys," said Muller, who estimates the national turkey population is around 6 million.
He said it's unclear whether turkeys were actually part of the original Thanksgiving held by the Pilgrims in what is now Massachusetts.
"Whether there were actually turkeys there or not, the American wild turkey is cemented into this country's history," Muller said.
Now, not far from the site of that original Thanksgiving, in Foxborough, Massachusetts, turkeys are so common some have turned aggressive toward people who feed them. In Vermont, flocks of 200 or 300 turkeys can damage farmers' grain bunkers by eating the feed intended for cattle and fouling the rest with their droppings, Scott said.
Vermont's native turkey population was wiped out in the 19th century due to habitat loss caused by farming practices that clear-cut forests from much of the state. In the 1850s only about 25 percent of Vermont was forested.
Unsuccessful efforts to restore partially domesticated turkeys were made in the middle of last century.
In the 1960s, a Vermont biologist who once worked in New York state developed a program that brought the 31 turkeys that had been trapped in New York's Alleghany and Steuben counties to Pawlet and Hubbardton, according to a history of the program provided by Vermont Fish and Wildlife. The area was considered ideal because of the combination of forests and farm fields littered with cow corn.
Within a year, the population was estimated at 150. By 1973 the population had rebounded enough for a limited hunting season in the area where they were first released.
In 1977 and 1978 the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife released 41 birds from Vermont in the towns of York and Eliot as part of a yearslong restoration effort. Within a few years, Maine biologists were catching and releasing their birds in other parts of the state. Now they're found in all 16 Maine counties.
New Hampshire began its turkey restoration in the 1970s. Now there are an estimated 35,000 to 45,000 statewide.
"There are no empty spaces in the state that need wild turkeys," said Ted Walski, a turkey project biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.