Accounts of large flocks of wild turkey inhabiting the Finger Lakes region can be found in the stories told by Native Americans and in the writings of early settlers. However, as settlement advanced, turkey numbers were quickly reduced. The story of their decline was written by the axe, fire, plow and gun.
Pioneer farmers cleared the land with axes and fire. The fires were often so intense that turkey nests, nesting habitats, and food sources were destroyed. The story of their decline was further written in the furrows of the plowed earth, through the absence of laws protecting wildlife, and ultimately by the guns of market hunters. By 1850 turkey were eliminated from the region.
Around 1900, farmers began abandoning their land, and by 1950, suitable turkey habitat was returning as shrubs and then trees started reclaiming the hillsides. As the forests continued to mature, the Conservation Department released 300 pen-raised turkey into central New York.Unfortunately, the game-farm turkey were unable to cope in the wild, and free-ranging domestic poultry transmitted fatal black-head disease to the released turkey.
Not discouraged, wildlife biologists looked next to wild flocks of turkey that were migrating into southwestern New York from Pennsylvania. Believing that their natural expansion would take many years, biologists initiated a trap-and-transfer program. During the winter months, turkey were baited with corn. While they were feeding, a 50-foot canon-powered net was fired over the unsuspecting birds and they were captured. Over a period of three decades, the transferred turkey had advanced and were reproducing throughout central New York. To this day the trap-and-transfer program remains a great wildlife management achievement.
In 1968 the Conservation Department established the first turkey hunting season in the southern tier, and two years later, opened turkey hunting in southern Finger Lakes’ counties. So successful has the restoration been that in spring 2009 over 34,000 turkey were harvested by hunters in New York, with 1,414 taken in Steuben County alone.
Ideal turkey habitat consists of hardwood forests interspersed with open fields, and that is exactly what the Finger Lakes area offers. Omnivorous feeders, their diet changes with the seasons. In spring and summer they eat a variety of insects, fruits, and snails. Come fall they feed on beechnuts, acorns, grapes and corn. In my woodlot, they pursue the abundant population of red-backed salamanders. It’s comical watching them snatch squirming salamanders only to end up with a wiggling tail. (To escape predators, salamanders have the ability to break off tails and legs and later regenerate them.) During winter, they often visit farm fields to feed on waste grain and manure spread by farmers. When the snow is deep, I’ve watched turkey swaying back and forth on the thin branches of sumac shrubs, feeding on the red fruit clusters.
Turkey are agile, run extremely fast, and although they fly only short distances, they can attain speeds of 50 miles per hour. When flying into their roosts at dusk, they crash land, snapping branches along the way. Once I watched a large flock fly into a white pine roost. The next morning, I returned to see the ground under the tree littered with small branches broken from their incoming flights.
Male turkey are called toms or gobblers, referring to their springtime propensity to do just that. They weigh up to 25 pounds and sport 5- to 8-inch beards on their chests. During the breeding season their heads and necks become iridescent shades of white, blue and red. Toms also have sharp spurs on the backs of their legs, which are employed during dominance fights with other males.
Females, or hens, are smaller with rusty-brown bodies and blue-gray heads. They are very vocal and usually can be heard “talking” before being seen. They “yelp” to let gobblers know their location, and also “putt,” “purr” and “cluck.”
Their breeding season runs from March through June. For most turkey hunters, the pursuit of spring gobblers is the ultimate outdoor experience. In early spring gobblers undergo anatomical, physical and behavioral changes caused by increased levels of testosterone in their blood. (The hunters I know go through the same transformation.) At dawn, toms gobble to announce their presence to their harem of hens and competing males. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to get them gobbling. I’ve heard them respond to cawing crows, hooting owls, rumbling thunder and one time to pounding nails, when I was repairing my deck.
Typically hens lay 10 to 12 eggs on the forest floor. After hatching, hens take the young turkey or poults into fields to feed on insects. They develop very fast and can fly within two weeks.
Much has been said about the intelligence of turkey. Opinions range. They are the smartest creatures of the forest, or they are dumb as rocks. YouTube videos showing breeding gobblers attacking police cars with flashing red lights seems to confirm the latter. However, my vote is they are extremely smart. If I’m able to get close to a gobbler in the spring, it is usually a case of good fortune rather than my ability to outsmart him.
by Bill Banaszewski