Speaking for the turkey
About the author: Bridget Macdonald provides communications support for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region’s Science Applications program and North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative. Her background includes experience in journalism, research, and more than a decade working as a seasonal park ranger for Cape Cod National Seashore, developing interpretive programs and materials to educate visitors about park resources.
Every November, turkeys take center stage. They’re the heart of the Thanksgiving meal, the inspiration for annual foot races, the emblem of a premium American bourbon maker, and the default arts-and-crafts activity in elementary schools during the short week before the holiday.
You know the routine: Place hand on construction paper, trace outline with marker, draw eyes, beak, and waddle, color brightly, glue on feathers, scrub glue and feathers off hands. Gold star!
There’s no mistaking a turkey, and whether you live in the country or the suburbs, chances are you’ve seen one in your neighborhood.
That’s because turkeys are fairly adaptable. Their habitat encompasses woods, swamps, field edges, and clearings, and they can adapt well to living near people.
While it may seem that these birds are as comfortable in a park in the Bronx as in the woods of Vermont, they do have specific habitat requirements that cannot really be fulfilled in densely populated areas. Turkeys are easy to recognize, relate to, perhaps even love, but this familiarity masks their wild side. When a species is so familiar, it can be difficult to see that its habitat is at risk.
For most Americans, turkeys symbolize a number of things – fall, family, home…over-indulgence – but as a native species, they can also represent something else.
In ecology, representative or “surrogate” species are those that typify the lifecycles or habitat requirements of a larger group of species.
Like a delegate, a representative species speaks for others from similar communities, with similar needs.
When weighing the long-term payoffs of big conservation decisions – such as dam removal or habitat restoration – it’s critical to have ways of measuring success at the ground level. Representative species provide means of gauging the health of ecosystems, habitats, and communities that are considered important for biodiversity, or are particularly vulnerable to threats from development or climate change.
In the Connecticut River Watershed Pilot – a landscape conservation design project in the Northeast – scientists have selected a suite of 14 representative species as one way to set conservation goals for the entire watershed. By using the best available science to set measurable goals for these species of fish and wildlife, scientists can estimate the amount, type, and distribution of habitat that will be needed to sustain these populations at target levels into the future.
For example, the Eastern Meadowlark serves as a representative species for pastures and grasslands. The theory is that if we protect landscapes that support Eastern Meadowlark, other species that rely on similar habitat will benefit as well – species like American Kestrel, Northern Bobwhite, Horned Lark, and yes, wild turkey.
Scientists select representative species based on how they use habitat, how they function in an ecosystem, and how they respond to management actions. While turkey was not selected as one of the 14 species for the Pilot, this species does tell a compelling story about how profoundly human actions can impact native habitat.
Consider the turkey population of Cape Cod. By the 1850s, wild turkeys had been completely extirpated from the Cape as a result of overhunting and deforestation. Now there are an estimated 5,000 living on the Cape Cod. Why? A state game warden released a flock of 18 turkeys on the Upper Cape in 1989, and another small flock three years later. With tens of thousands of acres of conservation land now protected on the Cape by a combination of non-profit organizations and state and federal agencies, turkeys have the forests and fields they need to thrive.
Turkeys also tell us something about ourselves. We are innately curious about nature, eager to see wildlife, and predisposed to assign cultural value to charismatic creatures. Sometimes, elusive and secretive creatures get shortchanged as a result, but our love for turkey suggests that we have the capacity to love and sustain other creatures as well. The naked head, the red fleshy wattle, the distinctive “gobbling” cry. They are by no means cute and cuddly, but at least in November, the turkey is everyone’s favorite species. Perhaps from now on, beyond what it “symbolizes,” we should think about what wild turkey “represents.”
Check out the National Wild Turkey Federation to learn more about wild turkey conservation.