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Turkeys 365: Fall of the American Wild Turkey

Editor's note: "Turkeys 365" is a new blog that delves into the fascinating world of the wild turkey. Our first entry chronicles the well-documented overharvest and subsequent population crash of America's bird.

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Mass., in 1620, they found a land abundant with Eastern wild turkeys. Some biologists have estimated that 10 million turkeys inhabited pre-settlement America.

Wild turkeys

It's critical every hunter understands why wild turkey numbers crashed. The future of hunting overall depends on it.

Settlers often saw toms strutting and gobbling in the countryside. Soon, the Pilgrims began trying to cross-breed wild turkeys with the domesticated birds they’d brought from England. Some historians believe roast turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621. No one knows that for sure, but the birds were an important food source for American Indians.

Settlers quickly learned how to hunt and trap turkeys. As pioneers pushed westward and cleared forests, turkey habitat decreased, and bird numbers dwindled. Beginning in the late 1700s, market hunters targeted turkeys heavily. Some historical reports indicate hens were sold for 6 cents apiece and large gobblers went for 25 cents. Still, turkeys were so plentiful that some people only considered them as food for the lower class. Rich men, however, encouraged turkey breeding so their wives could have colorful dyed feathers for hats, coats and dresses.

During the Civil War, food was scarce, so turkeys endured increased harvest. Soon, the bird had been extirpated from almost half its native range. By 1851, turkeys were gone from Massachusetts. By 1907, they had disappeared from Iowa. By 1920, turkeys had been extirpated from 18 of their native 39 states.

By the Great Depression, only about 30,000 turkeys remained, and those birds were limited to inaccessible areas, such as the swamps of Alabama or Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.

Up next: Rise of the American Wild Turkey

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