|Gobbler display- MDC|
The restoration of turkey populations after they were nearly decimated in the two centuries following the arrival of European settlers is one of the great comeback stories of conservation. By 1920 the US population was about 30,000 birds and they had been extirpated from 18 of their original 38 states. "In the 1950s, wild turkey populations in the state were at an all-time low of fewer than 2,500 birds in 31 counties" according to MDC. State conservation departments in cooperation with the National Turkey Federation eventually trapped and moved 200,000 birds between states, reestablishing their native communities.
In recent years there has been a mysterious decline in turkey populations in many of the southern states. Decreases of 40 to 65 percent of been recorded in Georgia and Arkansas. Missouri's statewide turkey flock decreased by 30% in 10 years with some regions recording a 50% drop.
There are a number of factors proposed as reasons for the declining populations. One is the rapid increase in birds introduced to new areas. Populations could be expected to expand rapidly before settling in to an equilibrium depending on the predator population, available cover and food supplies. In other words, part of the decline might be expected.
With a sudden increase in the availability of delicious turkeys, an increase in predators could almost be predicted. Coyotes are expanding into states where they never occurred before, possibly due to the loss of wolves as the top predators in the past two centuries. Increasing populations of omnivorous raccoons, associated with the decrease in commercial trapping, could be another factor. Invasive species such as fire ants and feral hogs could also affect populations.
Another interesting theory is the recent increase in cool wet springs, creating what has been called the "wet hen hypothesis." Damp air holds smells close to the ground, increasing the time it takes for me to take our schnauzers on a walk on rainy days. It is suspected that damp feathers of nesting hens make them easier for predators to find.
Habitat loss is an ongoing problem for turkeys as it is for quail, prairie chicken, and most other wildlife species. Large forest tracts that had been maintained sustainably with frequent burning are now being managed by timber management investment companies with fewer ecological concerns.
Benjamin Franklin did not propose the wild turkey as a national symbol and the first Thanksgiving participants probably were served goose rather than turkey. Read the Audubon article for this and much more information.