Wild turkeys make a comeback in Vermont

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(Host) Thirty-five years ago, there were no wild turkeys in Vermont. Today, the big birds are a familiar sight in fields and back yards across the state.

VPR’s Steve Zind looks at how the wild turkey has made its surprising comeback.

(Sound of a yelping turkey call.)

(Zind) Dale Morse is standing at the edge of a field on an old hill farm near Randolph. He’s demonstrating the yelp of a hen turkey. Turkey hunting involves calling the birds by pretending to be another turkey. Morse makes the sound by scraping a paddle-shaped piece of wood over the chalked edge of narrow, rectangular box. Morse is an avid hunter and head of the Vermont Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

(Morse) “There’s also a ‘purr.’ I will use it just to calm them down.” (Purring sounds.)

(Zind) Not long ago, Morse’s turkey call would have gone unanswered. By the late nineteenth century, the birds had disappeared from Vermont, along with a number of other native species. Seventy-five percent of the state had been cleared of trees and there was no longer enough good habitat.

As the woods grew back over the next half-century, animals like white tailed deer, beaver and fisher were reintroduced to the state. In 1969, biologists began by trapping 31 wild turkeys in New York State and bringing them to Vermont. As the birds reproduced, their offspring were distributed around the state.

(Doug Blodgett) “So from those original 31 birds, our population has expanded to the numbers we have today, which is around 40,000.”

(Zind) Doug Blodgett is with the Fish and Wildlife Department. Blodgett says the reintroduction of turkeys in Vermont has been a huge success. Vermont turkeys have been used to repopulate other New England states. They’ve also been shipped to Ontario and West Germany. Blodgett says after years of dramatic increases, Vermont’s turkey population is showing signs of leveling off. He says it’s hard to tell what the limit might be:

(Blodgett) “We may be close to that now. There’s a biological carrying capacity of the natural habitat and the ability to sustain the population. There’s also a social carrying capacity on the part of people and farmers to cope with nuisance incidents that we’re getting reported now, in terms of turkeys in bunker silos and grain silos and that kind of thing.”

(Zind) Blodgett says turkeys have been successful in Vermont because they’re rugged birds that have adapted to harsh weather. They’re also well equipped to fend off a host of predators from coyotes to raccoons. Thirty years ago, Vermont established a limited turkey hunting season. Today, there are two seasons: spring and fall.

(Blodgett) “Many hunters credit them with very large brains because they can be very sly and very secretive, particularly in the springtime. However, the reality is they have a brain the size of a pea.”

(Zind) But it’s a cunning pea brain.

(Morse) “I’ve got a lot of friends that say that turkey hunting must be easy!”

(Zind) Dale Morse says turkeys may be easy to spot as they feed in the open during the summer, but they’re mostly out of sight and hard to find when they’re in season.

(Morse) “You’re hunting an animal that has excellent hearing. Eyesight that is ten times ours, and extremely wary.”

(Zind) Hunters take about 5,000 turkeys annually, but Morse says the majority go home empty-handed. Unlike their domesticated cousins, on Thanksgiving most wild turkeys are on the wing, not on the table.

(Morse) “What am I having? I wish I could say wild turkey. But I didn’t get one this fall. I’m having a domestic bird.” (Laughs.)

(Zind) Hunters, weather and predators notwithstanding, turkeys have found a home in Vermont and biologists say they’re here to stay.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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