Wild Turkeys in the Adirondacks – a Wildlife Restoration Surprise

Eastern Wild Turkey Like a perfectly timed accompaniment to the rising sun, the gobbling starts as the sky lightens to the gentle azure blue of dawn. The pattern emerged mid-March; wake to the warbling gobble of a male wild turkey just in time to catch Venus still bright in the eastern sky. Thanks to my turkey alarm clock, I watch the spring sun as it rises deep in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.

This natural reveille is relatively new in the Adirondack region. Until about 25 years ago, the soundtrack of early morning in the Adirondacks was bereft of gobbles and yelps.

According to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) Wildlife and resident Biologist, and Regional Wildlife Manager, Ed Reed, wild turkeys are native to North America and were found across the continent when the Europeans arrived, but there is no evidence turkeys lived in the Adirondacks until about twenty-five years ago. At the time of European colonization, wild turkeys occupied most of what is currently New York State, but stayed south of the Adirondacks. Unfortunately for them, the early Adirondack settlers did not enjoy the wild turkey dinners savored by their contemporaries to the south.

The rest of New York State soon joined the Adirondack Mountains when the last of the original wild turkeys disappeared entirely from New York in the mid-1840’s, a result of lost habitat as forests were cut for timber and farms, and unregulated hunting. By the late 1800s, 75 percent of New York State was cleared land and there were no turkeys left in the State.

When farming began to decline in the early 1900s, the land gradually reverted to brush and then grew into woodland. By the late 1940s, much of the southern tier of New York was again capable of supporting turkeys. It was around 1948 when wild turkeys from a small remnant population in northern Pennsylvania slipped across the border into western New York and became the first turkeys in New York State after an absence of 100 years.

Then in 1959, New York State biologists trapped live wild turkeys in parts of New York where they had become abundant and released them elsewhere in New York. The goal of the program was to transplant a few turkeys throughout the state so they could form the nucleus of a new flock in their respective new locations. The project was a huge success; there are now an estimated 300,000 wild turkeys in New York State.

The big surprise however, is the large breeding population of wild turkeys who now live in the Adirondacks. Ed Reed said conventional biologist’s wisdom predicted wild turkeys could not survive the harsh Adirondacks winters, so the Adirondacks did not receive any transplanted turkeys. It is likely the birds released nearest to the Adirondacks, in the Champlain Valley and St. Lawrence Valley farm country, wandered into the Adirondacks.

It appears those wandering turkeys found modern-day Adirondack winters adequately comfortable and have set up house. The Adirondacks now hosts a healthy, year-round breeding population of wild turkeys.

Adirondack Wild Turkey Tracks winter 2011

The turkey prints shown here were made in mid-March, when the snow was three feet deep in the Adirondack Mountains.

The local flock survived this year’s long winter and deep snow, so either the wild turkey has evolved or Adirondack winters have moderated. I’ll leave the hypotheses to the experts and enjoy our new Adirondack neighbors.

A flock of flying turkeys is an impressive sight. Although not the largest or heaviest bird capable of flight; the Trumpeter Swan (Cygnusbuccinator) holds that distinction, the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is no lean, mean, flying machine. Male turkeys, called toms or gobblers, can tip the scales at 26 pounds. Female turkeys, or hens, are smaller but rank as one of the bigger girls in their class wearing feathers this year, and usually weigh about 15 pounds. Reed said turkeys fly to and from their roosts to escape predators, but otherwise prefer to run or walk as they go about their day scratching the ground for insects, plants, and seeds, their main diet.

Wild Turekys in the AdirondacksAs I learned this spring during the 6-week turkey breeding season, the toms gobble in the morning, usually in response to what they think is the yelp and cluck of a female. The annoying sound of a man-made turkey call is intended to mimic the hen’s yelp or beckoning greeting “Oh sweetie - I’m over here.” When the gobbler gets it right and responds to a real hen, they pair up and the circle of life continues.

The local birds were rather noisy and “busy” this past spring and have settled down now that breeding season is over. Hopefully this means someone is tending a nest of surprises - the next generation of home-grown Adirondack turkeys.

This story was originally published in June 2011. The turkeys are still going strong and the population continues to grow in the Adirondack Mountain region of northern New York.

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