NWTF white paper puts the wild turkey’s past in perspective and its future in focus

With some of the largest technology and scientific gains happening right before our eyes, the National Wild Turkey Federation strives to harness it for the benefit of the wild turkey and the preservation of our hunting heritage.

Tom Hughes, Certified Wildlife Biologist and the Director of Research and Science at the NWTF, has summarized the wild turkey’s past, dispelled misinformation and relayed the story of one of the greatest wildlife comebacks ever witnessed.

In his latest publication, Wild Turkey Population History and Overview, Hughes began by clarifying historical wild turkey numbers.

Hughes report states, “pre-Columbian populations of wild turkeys in the United States were conservatively estimated at 10 million animals, and they were an important resource for Native Americans who used the animals for food, clothing, tools and ceremonial purposes.” 

But unregulated hunting, contemporary logging practices, expanding urban populations as well as human population explosions negatively affected wild turkey populations and their habitat. The declining populations continued through the 1940s.

Hughes report states, “Estimates of the lowest nationwide wild turkey population numbers vary.  Although a figure of 30,000 is often quoted, a lowest number of approximately 200,000 birds is more likely,” which is still an incredible decline from the historic pre-colonial populations. “Continentally their populations had declined by more than 90 percent,” Hughes wrote.

Early restoration efforts included releasing farm-raised turkeys, which was not successful, to the wildly more successful use of cannon and rocket nets to capture wild birds and then transfer them to new locations with suitable habitats.

“As it turned out,” Hughes said, “artificially propagating turkeys for release into the wild was biologically unsound. It became apparent that the most important factor influencing mortality of juveniles was the survival behaviors learned from wild hens. Thus, no matter how genetically close pen-reared turkeys were to wild stock, they lacked the capacity to survive on their own in the wild without this component in their rearing.”

Stocking areas with wild-caught birds proved to be the answer, and once seed populations were placed in good habitat, turkey numbers grew exponentially.

“Wild turkeys are currently found in self-sustaining populations in 49 of the 50 United States, six Canadian provinces and in central and eastern Mexico, marking an extraordinary recovery from the scattered, remnant populations of less than a century ago,” Hughes wrote. “Current population numbers are slightly down from the peaks of the last decade, and are now estimated to be about 6.2 million nationwide.”

Resource Library for: Wild Turkey Population History and Overview