Spring is wild turkey mating season and the month of May is also spring wild turkey hunting season in most of New York State and throughout the Finger Lakes Region. Wildlife managers report that the turkey population is in good shape and predict a bountiful harvest. But that wasn’t always the case.
The wild turkey is native to North America and was common throughout all of what is now New York State south of the Adirondacks during the period of European colonization. But turkey habitat disappeared when settlers cleared forests for timber and farmland, and turkey numbers declined when they were indiscriminately hunted for food. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the last of the original wild turkeys in the state disappeared in the mid-1840s. By the late 1800s, seventy-five percent of New York State was under the plow and good turkey habitat was nonexistent.
In the early 1900s, farming began to decline and fallow, infertile farm fields reverted back to brush lots that eventually grew into woodlands. In the 1950s, a remnant turkey population from Pennsylvania migrated into western New York and established the first resident flock in over a century. After an attempt to raise game-farm turkeys and release them into the wild failed, biologists devised a trap-and-transfer program using the Pennsylvania turkeys that had by then established a healthy breeding population. The rest as they say is history. Today, wild turkeys can be found throughout New York – even the Adirondacks – where milder winter conditions due to climate change have made the region more hospitable to turkey habitation.
During the spring turkey hunting season, only males, called toms or gobblers, may be taken. (See the DEC’s hunting regulations.) They are easily recognized by their beard – a clump of stiff broom-like bristles projecting from the center of the breast – and by their ritualistic mating performance, which includes a choreographed strut with fanned tails, reddened heads and stiffened wings extended toward the ground. The dance is meant to impress nearby hens. The vain male birds sometimes become so preoccupied that they are oblivious to human intrusion. When turkey hunting, the trick is to not be spotted by hens.
Hunters use a variety of turkey calls that imitate the yelp of a lovelorn hen in an effort to attract a tom to their location. I use a wooden box-style call in an attempt to lure a gobbler within camera range and to induce him to dance, gobble, and strut. Either camouflage clothing or a photo blind is essential.