Talking Turkey on Thanksgiving, Giving Thanks for what Nature Provides

Today we’re hearing from Tom Decker about turkeys and his gratitude for the bounty that nature provides to him, his family, and his community. Tom is a certified wildlife biologist with our regional Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program, as well as a Fellow with The Wildlife Society.  

While I recognize Thanksgiving as a time to give thanks, springtime is when I reflect most on the things I’m grateful for in my life.  Coincidentally, these spring reflections also revolve around turkeys, the wild kind that roam the forests and fields of New England.  

I spend many days in the field each spring picking fiddleheads, mushrooms, leeks, and trying to harvest a turkey (or two).  My family relies on the bounty of the outdoors and my household generally has moose, deer, turkey, geese and snowshoe hare in the freezer, as well as ample stocks of fish.

Each springtime hunt brings me back to my youth when I lived and worked on farms owned by German and Russian immigrants.  My family had owned and farmed these lands since the mid 1800s, yet we never got to experience the sights or sounds of wild turkeys as they were virtually non-existent in much of the northeast when I was growing up.  Turkeys  were plentiful when the English, Dutch and French colonists arrived in the region, but they were virtually eliminated from New England by the early 1800s. Unregulated hunting and the clearing of forests for farming were so drastic that a plentiful population of turkeys virtually disappeared in short period of time. Thus, generations of my family had never heard turkeys gobble, seen flocks of birds, or found their nests in the woods, even though we worked the land for decades.

That all changed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  State fish and wildlife agencies, the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service, and chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation began a restoration program to bring turkeys back to New England.  Initial efforts releasing turkeys grown on “game farms” failed as these birds lacked the “wildness” needed to survive in nature.

With the advent of a tool called a “rocket net,” wildlife biologists were able to capture turkeys where they were plentiful in the south and transport entire flocks to new areas in the northeast that had good turkey habitat. Over a period of several decades, this technique restored robust numbers of turkeys to areas where they had been absent for over 100 years.  

Wild Turkey release

Over time, turkey populations became abundant enough that a limited hunting season was allowed under state licensing and regulations in the spring, and in some states in the fall as well.  Today, wildlife biologists track turkey harvests, examine their habitat needs, monitor their health and diseases and ensure these populations are sustainable for the future.

It’s estimated that 200,000 turkeys now roam the forests and fields of New England. The wild turkey….local food from the forest….and their calls in the chorus of birds in the spring can once again be enjoyed.  

Seeing flocks of turkeys is now as commonplace as it was during colonial times.  In fact, in 2016 21,640 turkeys were legally harvested during spring and fall seasons by hunters in our region. This equates to 239,100 pounds of edible meat for local households.  

Displaying tom wild turkey at woodland edge by Bill Byrne /MassWildlfe

We know from studies of the public who hunt, most successful hunters share their game with their family and neighbors, another cultural practice that is hundreds of years old.  I know at my house that includes wild turkey, wrapped in bacon, cooked on the grill with fiddleheads and leek salad on Mother’s Day…. another important day when I am thankful for the things in my life.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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