This week, about 46 million turkeys will appear on tables across the United States. As families give thanks and try to steer conversations away from politics, they should also give a nod of appreciation to the ancient Mayans, who were the first to domesticate that bird on their plate.
That’s right, the iconic American turkey dinner is from Mexico. Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo—also referred to as “White or dark?”—is a subspecies now extinct in the wild. Early European explorers shipped the bird all over Europe and the Middle East, and in an ironic twist, the Pilgrims are even thought to have brought a few live M. g. gallopavos back to the New World on the Mayflower.
But the true American turkey is Meleagris gallopavo—a sleek, fleet-footed rendition of the Butterball, an animal that soars down out of the trees like a B-52 bomber and makes a hell of a ruckus in the woods as it claws through leaf litter looking for insects and acorns. Seeing one in the wild makes me feel lucky and grateful to American conservationists who stopped these gobblers from going the way of another American staple, the extinct passenger pigeon.
Scientists estimate that some 10 million wild turkeys inhabited pre-Columbian North America, from Maine to Colorado and all the way down past Mexico City. But by the early 1900s, about 300 years after the first Thanksgiving, that number had been sliced to just 200,000.
“The short version [of the story] is that they turned out to be pretty easy to shoot,” says Kenn Kaufman, an editor for Audubon. Though usually smaller than their selectively bred cousins, male wild turkeys can top out at around 24 pounds, making them one of the heaviest birds still capable of flight. And all that meat makes for a big ol’ target.
Early Americans did to wild turkeys what they did to numerous other species once found in abundance―the bison, the passenger pigeon, the gray wolf. That is, they shot ’em up with little thought of the consequences. Some historical harvest accounts show evidence of individual hunters killing hundreds of birds a day.
Habitat loss, however, proved every bit as deadly to the species as the bullet. Farmland was replacing huge swaths of virgin forest by 1850. A few decades later came large-scale industrial logging, as railroads served as a pipeline between far-off forests and new timber markets. By around 1920, wild turkeys had disappeared completely from 18 of the 39 states they historically occupied.
But around the same time, an environmental awakening was also happening across this great land. Outdoorsmen and hunters started noticing that America’s woods had become increasingly empty, and they set about reconciling the desire to consume with the need to conserve.
Thanks in part to pressure from sportsmen’s groups, state agencies began trying to restore wild turkey populations in the 1920s and 1930s by capturing the birds where they were still plentiful and releasing them in depleted territories. But Kaufman says these efforts were a “dismal failure.” Catching live turkeys in the wild, it turns out, is a bit of a fool’s errand. The birds we associate with obesity and stupidity are, in fact, too intelligent for common trapping techniques. Pole traps, pen traps, funnel traps, and drop nets—wild turkeys bested them all.
With too few wild birds to support catch-and-release programs, many states started trying to farm wild turkeys, as had been done with the birds’ Mexican cousins. Virginia and Pennsylvania led the charge, raising and releasing thousands of birds over the course of the next two decades. But for some reason, the turkeys raised in captivity failed to pass on crucial survival smarts to their chicks. Batch after batch, the birds were brought to the wild, never to be seen alive again.
The only thing left for wildlife managers to do was to go back to plan A: Find a way to capture turkeys and relocate them to prime but vacant habitat, where they could breed wild and free. Because traditional trapping methods had failed before, the managers turned to a more explosive alternative: the cannon net. A cannon net is what it sounds like—a net you fire out of cannons, all ka-boom like.
In 1951, Herman Holbrook, a turkey hunter and wildlife biologist then with the South Carolina Wildlife Department (and later with the U.S. Forest Service), became the first person to catch wild turkeys with a cannon-fired net. Working out of Francis Marion National Forest near Charleston, South Carolina, Holbrook caught 241 wild turkeys over the next six years. The birds were released across eight other locations within the state. Four of these releases led to reproducing populations of wild turkeys, and the method quickly spread. By 1959, more than half of the states in the union were actively cannoning, capturing, and releasing wild turkeys or making plans to do so.
By 1974, the population had blossomed from an estimated 320,000 in 1951 to somewhere around 1.4 million. Amazingly, wild turkeys were even thriving in 16 states where they hadn’t existed historically. (Kaufman says he knows of no research indicating that this is an ecological problem.)
America’s wild turkey had made a massive comeback, but things really got moving in 1985 when the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) established a “super fund” system that helped each state raise money for wildlife management programs that helped conserve M. gallopavo. In this way, turkey hunters were literally bankrolling the return of their quarry. In his treatise on wild turkey conservation, Thomas Hughes, NWTF director of research and science, estimates that the organization has “contributed or facilitated the investment of $454 million in wildlife conservation since its inception.”
Wild turkeys now number around 7 million and officially inhabit more territory than perhaps at any other time in history. Even so, Hughes is not satisfied. Over the past five years, his organization’s annual surveys have reported population declines. As a way to once again protect the bird’s numbers and homeland, the NWTF is in the middle of a 10-year initiative geared toward conserving or enhancing 4 million acres of prime turkey habitat and opening up 500,000 new acres to hunting.
“As a turkey hunter and a turkey biologist, it does concern me,” Hughes says. “If there’s even an apparent decline, I want to know why and what we can do about it.”
Some might say it is a bit obsessive to worry about an animal currently strutting through 49 states, six Canadian provinces, and vast swaths of Mexico. But anyone who wants to conserve millions of acres of habitat, along with the native wildlife residing within it, is welcome at my table.
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