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Turkeys 365: Rise of the Wild Turkey

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

About 1920, turkeys started getting a break. Millions of acres cleared by the pioneers began to regenerate into woodlands. Also, farsighted leaders began enacting conservation laws. In 1937, the Roosevelt Administration passed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, or Pittman-Robertson Act, which placed an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and other hunting equipment. The billions of dollars raised have helped rebuild turkey populations.

Wildlife agencies tried to restore turkey populations, but their crude methods, which usually involved game-farm or pen-raised turkeys, didn’t work. Pen-reared turkeys didn’t imprint on wild hens, and they didn’t have the instinctual skills to survive and reproduce in the wild. Further, released birds spread diseases into wild flocks, hindering expansion. In 1981, Pennsylvania stopped stocking pen-raised turkeys.

As trapping techniques advanced, turkey numbers began to increase. In 1951, biologists in South Carolina began using cannon nets to trap turkeys. The nets, originally designed for capturing waterfowl, proved instrumental in the new trap-and-transplant restoration philosophy, in which thousands of turkeys have been captured and relocated. Also, drop-nets and immobilizing drugs were used.

During the past 60 years, state and federal wildlife agencies have spent millions — mostly money from hunters — on habitat-improvement and trap-and-transplant projects. By 1959, the country’s turkey population was almost 500,000.

In 1973, the National Wild Turkey Federation, a nonprofit conservation and educational organization, was founded. Since then, the NWTF has contributed more than $186 million to restore turkeys throughout and beyond their original range.

Nowadays, turkeys might represent the greatest conservation comeback in American history. In 2012, more than 7 million turkeys inhabited the United States. Forty-nine states — Alaska is the sole exception — feature turkey hunting seasons, and about 3 million people hunt turkeys every spring.

The Pilgrims would probably be proud.

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