For many years the only place you could find something called Wild Turkey in New England was on a liquor store shelf. New England hunters, lumbermen and farmers had driven the wild Meleagris gallopavo to near extinction.
Since the 19th century, the bird that appeared on the Thanksgiving table was the weaker, smaller and milder-tasting domestic Meleagris gallopavo.
Today, however, the wild turkey has made a comeback – with a vengeance. Suburbanites fed up with wild turkeys chasing their kids and pets view them as ugly hooligan nuisances. Newspapers are filled with stories of wild turkey aggression in the New England suburbs. State governments even offer tips on how to avoid conflict with a wild turkey. (Hint: spray them with a garden hose if you find them in your garden.)
But just how did the wild turkey disappear – and then return – to New England?
Good Huntin’, Good Eatin’
Ben Franklin famously praised the wild turkey as a better national symbol than the bald eagle. Franklin viewed the eagle as a coward, especially compared with the wild turkey, which would,
…not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
But by the time Franklin defended the noble turkey, it was vanishing from the New England countryside.
The wild turkey started to disappear from New England as early as 1672. That year travel writer John Josslyn wrote that the English and Indians ‘had destroyed the breed [in New England], so that ’tis very rare to meet with a wild Turkie in the Woods.’
Sixty years later, almost no wild turkeys could be found east of the Connecticut River. Connecticut saw its last wild turkey in 1813. Vermont had none by 1842, and they disappeared from Massachusetts in 1851. Three years later, New Hampshire’s last wild turkey was spotted in Weare.
Wild turkeys had a fatal vulnerability: They don’t migrate. So they made an especially welcome meal during the cold months when game is scarce.
Not only that, but the tasty wild fowl was too easy to kill. The wild turkey roosts in a flock in the same tree night after night. Once a hunter discovered a turkey roost, it was curtains for the birds. Hunters would shoot as many as a dozen at a time.
Sometimes hunters drove whole flocks into log traps. And sometimes hunters organized circular turkey hunts, in which people formed a circle around several square miles and drove flocks of wild turkeys toward the center. Then hunters would slaughter them.
The Dodo’s Fate?
In 1884 a Harper’s Weekly writer argued the wild turkey would soon go the way of the dodo.
The wild turkey didn’t just disappear from New England. By the 1920s, wild turkeys had vanished from 20 of the 39 states in which they ranged. By the late 1930s, as few as 30,000 wild turkeys remained in the United States.
Other North American birds took it in the neck as well, including the crane, the swan, the brant, the Canada goose and the canvasback duck. The passenger pigeon didn’t make it, extinct by 1914.
The wild turkey began to make its comeback during the Great Depression. The Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 put a tax on sporting arms and ammunition, and it paid to bring back wildlife. In 1940 the federal Wildlife Restoration program began to return the wild turkey back to its old habitat. The failure of many farms during the Depression helped, because the forests that reclaimed them made good habitats for reintroduced wild turkeys.
Return of the Wild Turkey
Capturing the elusive fowl wasn’t easy. After many failures, wildlife officials found they could shoot a large net from a cannon over a flock of wild turkeys. Later in the 1960s, sleep-inducing drugs lulled the birds for easy capture.
Efforts to bring back the wild turkey to Maine began in 1942, when Fish and Game officials released 24 birds on Swan’s Island in Penobscot Bay. They didn’t take to the island. Then in the 1960s, fish and game clubs tried to transplant birds to Bangor and Windham. That didn’t work either. The wild turkey just didn’t seem to thrive in Maine’s deep snow.
But it worked in Vermont, where wildlife officials brought 31 wild turkeys from upstate New York during the winters of 1969-70 and 1970-71. They released the birds in Rutland County, and within a year Vermont had 150 wild turkeys. Today, the state has about 50,000 of them.
Massachusetts had similar luck transplanting wild turkeys from New York. In the 1970s, Massachusetts biologists trapped 37 turkeys in New York and released them in the Berkshires. By 1978, Massachusetts had a thousand wild turkeys. Wildlife officials continued to transplant the birds eastward, until the flocks grew so big that suburbanites started to call the police about them. They blocked traffic, dug up gardens and attacked old ladies. One Brookline mom had to whack a tom with her shovel after it launched itself at her and her infant daughter.
Try, Try Again
New Hampshire began to try and transplant wild turkeys in the winter of 1969-70, but the flock didn’t take. In 1975, fish and game officials tried again, bringing 25 turkeys from New York and Pennsylvania into the Connecticut River Valley. They figured the wild turkeys could get through the winters by feeding off the corn waste and manure from the valley’s dairy farms. They were right. New Hampshire had enough wild turkeys that it could open a hunting season on them in 1985.
Maine tried again in 1978, when state biologists brought 41 wild turkeys from Vermont and released them in the southernmost towns of York and Eliot. Then they began transplanting them eastward. Today, Maine has as many as 60,00 turkeys, to the delight of hunters and the dismay of farmers who say they peck their tomatoes, eat their blueberries and knock down their plants.
Rhode Island, somewhat late to the party, reintroduced the wild turkey in 1980 when wildlife officials released 29 birds in Exeter. Then for about 15 years the state did nothing. By the mid-1990s, there weren’t enough wild turkeys in Rhode Island to vex a golfer. Wildlife officials then released 137 birds into Scituate, West Greenwich, Burrillville, Tiverton and Little Compton. Today the state’s Department of Environmental Management thinks the flock is growing.
Open an Umbrella
Connecticut tried to reintroduce the wild turkey in the 1950s and continued through the early 1970s, but had no success. Then between 1975 and 1992, 356 turkeys were released at 18 sites throughout the state.’ Now, every one of Connecticut’s 169 towns has a flock of wild turkeys.
In 1975, the reintroduction of the wild turkey to Connecticut was named one of the Top 40 Environmental Accomplishments of the Past 40 Years. But tell that to the suburbanites in the Stamford area, who claim to fear rampaging flocks of wild turkeys.
“Senior citizens afraid to leave the house,” reported the Stamford Advocate. “Joggers and mail carriers chased. Children feeling threatened on their way to school.”
And then the newspaper offered a piece of advice that might have gotten Ben Franklin’s back up: ““Open an umbrella and walk toward the turkey; it will run away.”
Need some new ideas for your Thanksgiving feast? How about trying something old — and authentic — from the New England Historical Society’s latest ebook. Available from Amazon (click here).
With thanks to Wild Food: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 2004 edited by Richard Hosking.
Images: Wild turkey tom by By Checkingfax – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70398966. This story was updated in 2022.