Against all odds, the wild turkey has been a Maine survivor.
It almost was not so. As early as 1672 in New England, turkey populations began falling dramatically. As non-migratory birds, they were hunted during hungry winters, and their natural woodland habitats were decimated as farmers logged the land. By the early 1800s, there were no wild turkeys remaining in Maine.
Nationwide the estimated population of 10 million wild turkeys at the time Europeans arrived fell in the mid-1900s to a low of perhaps 200,000 birds, none of which were in New England. The wild turkey might easily have gone the way of the passenger pigeon to extinction.
But despite their odd gait and comical appearance, turkeys are tough birds.
Their layer of fat leaves them unaffected by harsh cold, and they adapt their diets to the season, moving from acorns and berries to mosses and seeds with the calendar. They can dig through up to six inches of snow for food, and can lose up to 40% of their body weight before starvation becomes a threat.
Deceptively good fliers, they escape predators by flying for bursts of up to a quarter mile at a speedy 55 miles per hour. They roost in trees at night, further protecting themselves from ground-dwellers. And though they nest on the ground (and the predator list only grows when eggs enter the picture), hens are excellent at finding effective hiding spots in the woods.
For all their canniness, however, the wild turkey was no match for New England hunters and their desire for fine mid-winter meals.
For more than 100 years, they were absent from Maine.
Then, with abandoned farmland having been reforested by the mid-1900s, and wanting to return a decimated species to its natural habitat, Maine wildlife officials began trying to re-introduce the bird. In 1942, 24 turkeys were released on Swan Island in Penobscot Bay… but they did not survive. Preservationists tried again in the 1960s, introducing the bird in Bangor and Windham, but they also did not survive. It was not until 1978 that the turkey was successfully re-introduced to the wilds of Maine when 41 birds were released in the more southern towns of York and Eliot (with 60 more quickly following them).
In 1970 there were no wild turkeys in Maine. 50 years later, from the original 111 birds set loose, there are now an estimated 70,000 wild turkeys throughout the state.
That is a success story, though some might say too successful: turkeys are blamed for everything from wreaking havoc on gardens to denuding blueberry fields to imperiling the next generation of oak trees by eating too many acorns. Though these are concerns biologists dismiss as overblown, not everyone loves a turkey.
But when we think of these gritty birds’ remarkable restoration, how can we not take pleasure in seeing them traversing our back yards in their strange and lovely strut?
Perhaps Benjamin Franklin was on to something when he advocated the wild turkey be named the national bird.