(page 4 of 5)
Doug Little loves wild turkey. Not the bourbon, the bird. Little is a regional wildlife biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation (yes, they have their own federation), based in Cornwallville, near Windham. “As a kid, I saw a video of biologists trapping turkeys, and I knew I wanted to be involved in that,” he says. “I could talk for hours about turkeys.”
We asked him to do just that — well, not for hours, but long enough to learn some interesting things about wild turkeys. For instance:
The birds were almost extirpated from the Northeast. Although the state estimates there are now about a quarter million wild turkeys in New York, they almost disappeared around the turn of the last century. Turkeys like a mix of farmland and woodland, such as what we have here in the Valley, to build nests and find food year-round, Little says. But wide-scale forest clearing for farming in the 1800s, along with natural “harvesting,” (that’s killing and eating to you and me), nearly wiped out the birds.
But thankfully, the bird population bounced back. “After the Civil War, as farmers moved west, the landscape gradually reverted to forest. Over time, we got the mix of cover types that the birds like,” Little says. At the same time, conservationists reintroduced populations from remnant flocks in Pennsylvania. “It’s been a huge success, and the population is pretty level now,” he says.
Yes, turkeys can fly. “People are always surprised to hear that,” says Little. “They are not the most graceful critters, but they can fly pretty fast.” In fact, they can travel in the air for upwards of 25 miles looking for food.
No, turkeys are not stupid. Domesticated turkeys, being used to humans, are docile, which makes them easy prey. But wild turkeys are very adept at finding food and avoiding predators. “Their sight and hearing are phenomenal, and to get within 20 yards of one is incredibly difficult,” he says. “They are not easy to catch.”
They are fairly easy to spot, however. Little says they are most active in early morning and late afternoon during the summer. If it’s raining, they like to be in the fields, because the rain makes it hard to hear predators in the woods. And in winter, look for them on dairy farms, which spread manure on their fields for fertilizer. The turkeys peck at the seeds and grains in the manure. “We call that the hot lunch program for turkeys,” jokes Little.
They taste delicious. It is legal to hunt turkeys in New York. “I am always disappointed when I don’t catch a turkey,” Little says. “They have more flavor than farm-raised turkeys. I think they taste a lot better.”