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NATURE NOTE – Number 33 November 28, 2021
At times I try to link the current NATURE NOTE to the season, so what could be more appropriate for late November than…
Our Current Topic: Turkeys
Most likely your Thanksgiving turkey was not a native bird, but we’ll talk about our native wild turkey here. As every scout knows, the Pilgrims hunted wild turkey, or more likely obtained them from the Native Americans. They were very abundant thorough out most of North America, but as the human population grew, and large amounts of the forest was cut for lumber and for conversion to agriculture land, their habitat was severely reduced and the turkey population plummeted. Also the wild turkey was hunted for shipping to commercial markets in the cities. With no hunting regulations or game management policies, there were no limitations on the season or number that could be hunted, so commercial hunters often supplied tables with wild birds long before farm raised turkeys became common. Laws about harvesting game were not common until the early 1900’s in most states, so between the late 1800’s and about 1920, the population of the wild turkey hit a dangerous level throughout their range. As states formed agencies to protect game, they tried several approaches to restocking turkeys, but with limited success until the mid-1950’s. This is when they switched from raising young birds on game farms for release to a program that captured native birds and released them in proper habitats with no or very low populations. The results started to pay off. In Virginia, the Tidewater area and Southwest Virginia were areas that successfully received these transferred birds. Today, Virginia supports a population of about 180,000 birds, with our council area being one of the areas with higher populations. Overall the Virginia population is stable or increasing. Our scout reservation is home to numerous turkeys that can be seen year around, including during summer camp.
Populations fluctuate annually based on their food supply – mainly the “mast” or acorn crop that varies from year to year. Turkeys also consume various other nuts, seeds, berries, insects, and small reptiles. Survival rate of young birds is not that high. Foxes and bobcats are major predators, while others are lost to summer storms or harsh winters. Wild turkeys max out at about 19 pounds, far below the one you find in your super market. They can live for a long time. The longest lifespan recorded was over 12 years. Turkeys can be seen in a variety of habitat, from deep woods to clearings along the Interstate. Their large size, iridescent color, wattle, naked head, and large fan-shaped tail (when displayed during spring courtship) make them easy to identify. Usually they will be found on the ground, scratching in leaves or litter for food, or walking along in small flocks. With excellent eyesight, they will detect you quickly and will fly off to a low limb. They are not strong flyers, but are excellent runners. At night, they usually roost in trees. Classified as a game bird, turkeys are a major part of the hunting season, both in the fall and also during spring “gobbler” season. In Virginia, a Wild Turkey Management Plan is developed by state wildlife officials, technical experts, land owners, hunters and non-hunters, to establish the objectives and strategies of turkey management in the state. These policies seek to promote the hunting traditions and at the same time ensure that it is carried out within population objectives of different areas based on the carrying capacity of that area. The 2020 fall season netted a harvest of over 2000 birds, while the spring gobbler season yield over 20,000 birds state wide – the second highest on record. Bedford County had the highest number of turkeys taken in Virginia. Ninety-three percent of all turkeys were taken on privately owned land. The current rules allow a hunter to take only one bird per day, and no more than 3 per year (fall and spring). Often presenting a challenge to hunters, the mast crop continues to be the major factor in measuring the success of hunters. When the crop is abundant, the turkeys will not range far, making them less exposed, while during light crop years, they need to search further out, and often expose themselves to hunters in more open areas
There will be some scouts that are opposed to hunting of turkeys or any wild animal, and that certainly needs to be respected. However, unless a parent or relative is a hunter, many scouts, especially from more urban areas, will have never had a serious discussion on the benefits of hunting. Making them aware of the need to control populations under a tightly controlled plan is beneficial to the health of the population, and at the same time provides for recreation (and food harvesting) of thousands of responsible hunters throughout the state. Ask around and see if you have a parent or someone that is a hunter, and could sit in on a discussion of hunting. The purpose is not to promote nor discourage hunting, but to make scouts aware of the structure within which it occurs and the safe guards in place to protect the population of the turkey as well as deer and other game species. Plus, keep an eye for those wild turkeys on your outings. Many young scouts have never seen one.