The American wild turkey currently struts across 49 states and numbers somewhere around six million birds. Unless you live in a city, chances are good that you’ve come across at least a rafter or two of these big brown birds, so ubiquitous have they become in suburban backyards and farmers’ fields.
My point is that it’s hard to believe these birds nearly went extinct from overhunting and habitat loss in the early 1900s. Despite their impressive current numbers, organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) continue to pour time and money into building up turkey habitats. They do so largely for turkey-hunting purposes, but the results have been boosted bird numbers and better outlooks for other wildlife that share the turkey’s love for early successional habitats.
These areas include young woods, grasslands, weedy lots, old fields, and shrub thickets—places where forests have not yet taken over. Early successional habitats are important for countless species, from berry-hungry bears, nectar-seeking rufous hummingbirds, and red-legged frogs to seed-stashing mice and the rat snakes that stalk them. Insects, fungi, spiders, millipedes—the list goes on and on.
The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker of the American Southeast is also among the turkey’s beneficiaries. These birds live only in longleaf pine forests―which are endangered themselves, thanks to the logging industry and other development.
The woodpeckers stand out for reasons other than their coloring, black and white with a dash of red. They tend to live in family groups of one breeding pair and a handful of nonbreeding “helper” males. As many as 1.6 million family groups were knocking away at pines at the time of European colonization, but by the time of its Endangered Species Act listing in 1979, the red-cockaded woodpecker had dropped to just 10,000 individual birds. Considering that only 3 percent of their longleaf pine forest habitat remains in natural condition today, it’s amazing any of these woodpeckers are here at all. Others, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, haven’t been so “lucky.”
The red-cockaded population is now thought to be around 14,000 individuals, but the birds are still in need of assistance. That’s where turkey hunters come in.
In 2012, the U.S. Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service teamed up with turkey hunters to restore about 21,000 acres of longleaf pine habitat. Kurt Dyroff, chief conservation officer for the NWTF, says the collective effort included thinning the understory with controlled burns, removing invasive plants like cogon grass, and selectively logging areas to promote more natural forest succession—all strategies that make the habitat better for turkeys.
According to Dyroff, those areas saw an increase of nearly 27 percent in breeding pairs of red-cockaded woodpeckers. “It’s a really cool story. We did all the things we do for turkeys, but in turn, we saw a direct benefit to a species that is in peril,” he says.
In the fall of 2015 and the spring of 2016, the NWTF kept the good times rolling by using National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant money to buy up a ton of longleaf pine seedlings and plant them on land owned by the U.S. Army in Louisiana, enough to restore 350 acres. The following year, they did another 300 acres. The NWTF has also contributed nearly $100,000 toward longleaf pine restoration in Alabama.
The red-cockaded woodpeckers get healthier habitat in a world where it’s mostly gone, and the turkey hunters create new places to hunt. Oh, and gopher tortoises (threatened), eastern indigo snakes (threatened), black pine snakes (threatened), and 26 other threatened or endangered species among the longleaf pines benefit too.
There’s room under the turkey’s wing for still more species. The New England cottontail was on its way to an endangered species listing in the early 2000s, again on account of habitat loss. Rather than wait for that designation, private groups (including the NWTF) teamed up with state and federal forces to create new thickets and scrublands in which the bunnies could prosper. Last year, the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge was born, a region-wide collaborative effort that ensures the rabbits have a permanent home.
Right now, refuge managers and volunteers are working to prepare parcels of land in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York for cottontails by removing invasive species and conducting prescribed burns. They are also planting brushland plant species to ensure that what grows back will be beneficial to the rabbits. And, of course, to wild turkeys too. The NWTF has been partnering with the refuge system to provide funds, seeds, and staff for active habitat management.
Wild turkey habitat also helps dozens of migratory bird species across the United States. Vanessa Kauffman, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says that cranes, golden-winged warblers, eagles, and bobwhite quail are just a few examples of species that flock to the same lands that turkeys do.
So even if you have an entirely different kind of bird on your Thanksgiving plate this year—Butterballs, after all, are extinct in the wild—you might want to raise your glass to the American wild turkey and its generosity to others.
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