Turkeys Gone Wild
Galen Larrabee and his brother Harold maintain a dairy herd of 400 milkers and 180 heifers on Aghaloma Farm in Knox. But there are times when it can seem as though there are as many wild turkeys on the Larrabees' farm as there are dairy cows.
"There are seven dairy farms within sight of each other in Knox, and there are probably 1,000 birds," Galen Larrabee says. "Summers, I'll see two or three here, two or three over there, but as the trees drop their leaves and the snow starts to fly, I'll see ten here and twenty over there.When the snow starts getting deep, it's like they all decide, 'Let's all live together for awhile.'
"Up until last year, I didn't consider them a terrible problem," says Larrabee, who has counted up to 123 turkeys at a time, though his relatives claim to have seen 250. "But they eat the goodness of the corn and leave their droppings."
Wild turkeys — those big, gawky, fan-tailed birds with their tiny heads dropping caruncled snoods and colorful wattles — are becoming increasingly common sights in Maine's woods, fields, and even some suburban streets after an absence of a century. Extirpated in the nineteenth century and re-introduced in the late twentieth, wild turkeys are now flourishing wildly. Since 1977, the wild turkey population in Maine has gone from zero to 35,000 birds, such that wild turkeys now outnumber both the iconic black bear (23,000) and the emblematic moose (29,000) in the Pine Tree State. But at this point it is impossible to say whether the return of the wild turkey is a conservation success story or an environmental disaster in the making.
maine first attempted to reintroduce wild turkeys in the 1940s and then again in the 1960s, but both efforts failed. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W) biologist Philip Bozenhard, who has overseen the state's successful wild turkey restoration program since the beginning, says the early birds were not hardy enough. "In the 1960s those were game farm birds," he explains. "They didn't know how to pass on the survival genes."
Each of the 35,000 wild turkeys in Maine today can trace its origins either to the forty-five birds relocated from Vermont in 1977 and 1978 or to the ninety-seven birds relocated from Connecticut in 1988 and 1990. The first batches were released in York and Eliot in 1977 and 1978 respectively and, employing a leapfrog approach, IF&W has systematically relocated birds at twenty-five-mile intervals ever since. All of the turkeys around Larrabee's farm in Knox, for instance, are related to thirty-three birds relocated from Eliot to Waldo in 1982. Last winter, more than 200 birds were relocated to fourteen different sites ranging from Cherryfield, Jonesboro, and Machias along the coast to Benedicta and Patten inland.
"We've now released birds as far as Penobscot County and Washington County and they've yet to fail," says Phil Bozenhard. "Turkeys have proven to be a lot more adaptable than we'd given them credit for."
turkeys are ground birds that only fly for short distances when startled or when roosting in trees at night, but they still manage to cover a lot of ground. While IF&W has not yet released wild turkeys in Maine's North Woods, for instance, birds released in the Farmington area have turned up as far away as Eustis.
"Turkeys are not as sedentary as you'd think," says Bozenhard, adding that the birds have been known to wander more than fifty miles. "We had one bird trapped in Falmouth and released in Richmond that was shot in Durham."
Bozenhard admits that IF&W really had no idea what to expect when it started bringing wild turkeys in from out of state in the 1970s. Wildlife biologists believed at the time that turkeys needed 5,000 to 10,000 acres of undeveloped land in order to thrive and that they could only survive in southern coastal regions of Maine where winter snow conditions were not too severe.
"The department was skeptical at first whether it would succeed, if we'd even get enough birds to have a hunting season," says Bozenhard.
The first modern-day turkey hunt in Maine did not take place until 1986, a decade after the first birds were released, and even then only nine birds were killed. The spring season is in May for shotguns and bows and arrows, with a fall bow-hunting-only season in October. It took a decade after the first hunt before the spring hunting harvest topped 100 in 1995, but since then turkey hunting has exploded in Maine. Hunters took 1,559 birds in the spring of 2000 and an astonishing 6,236 birds this past spring. The state has limited the number of permits it issues, but that number has been steadily increasing (500 in 1986, 9,000 in 2002, 15,600 in 2004) until this year when, in apparent recognition that turkeys were getting out of control in some areas, the state granted permits to anyone who wanted one.
With 24,000 permits issued this year, the turkey hunting success rate was 26 percent, suggesting that turkeys are somewhat easier to bag than deer (15 percent success rate) but far more difficult than moose (80 percent success rate).
In recognition of the fact that turkeys have become a problem for farmers, whose ground-level bunker silos provide a ready source of winter feed for the birds, the state legislature enacted a law in 2003 that allows farmers to shoot nuisance turkeys. But when Galen Larrabee and his family applied for a permit to do so, they were allowed to shoot only three birds, hardly putting a dent in their local turkey flock. But that's okay with Galen Larrabee. He doesn't really want to shoot the turkeys anyway; he just wishes they'd stay out of his silage.
"I like to see the birds out there, too," Larrabee admits. "I don't want to see them all gone. I'm trying to live with them, not against them."
Indeed, there are other Mainers who are pleased to see wild turkeys thrive here. Durham resident Tom Nannery, regional director for the National Wild Turkey Federation, says his organization is "the largest single-species conservation organization in the country." with 500,000 members nationally and 1,000 spread throughout eleven Maine chapters. The National Wild Turkey Federation promotes its sport by providing hunter education, supporting reintroduction and trap-and-transfer programs, and by working to improve turkey habitat.
Improving turkey habitat primarily entails planting winter-hardy plants such as crab apple and wild cranberry that will hold seeds above the snow. The National Wild Turkey Federation has spent thousands of dollars doing just that on a gentleman farm in New Gloucester, though the success of turkeys everywhere they have been released in Maine suggests that these birds may not need all that much outside assistance.
Of course, working dairy farmers — and to a certain extent blueberry farmers — have found themselves providing turkey assistance gratis. The Larrabees in Knox, for example, have taken to shoving piles of old corn outside for the birds in an attempt to keep them from entering their barns and eating the fresh feed.
"Probably 60 percent of the farmers out there have difficulties with turkeys," says Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association. "The severity depends on the area."
While conceding that birds like pigeons and crows have always been a challenge for dairy farmers, Bickford notes, "Turkeys are pretty ravenous little buggers. They can make quite a dent in a feed silo."
IF&W game wardens and biologists counsel farmers to maintain a vertical face on their silage, because turkeys can climb sloping piles of corn. They also issue cracker shells to help farmers scare the birds away, but biologist Phil Bozenhard admits the loud bangs "don't work except in the very short term." Some turkeys have actually been relocated from Knox to Danforth in Down East Maine and, as a last resort, a handful were shot.
despite the fact that many Maine farmers find turkeys to be a nuisance, one New Gloucester farmer has become so fond of wild turkeys that she now feeds a flock estimated at close to 200. That, says the National Wild Turkey Federation's Tom Nannery, is a mistake. "Everybody likes to see wild turkeys in their backyards," he says, "but if you stopped and thought about it you wouldn't [feed them]."
Feeding wild turkeys tends to reduce their survival instincts and turns them into beggar birds like those that took up residence a few years ago at Wolfe's Neck in Freeport. Motorists who slowed down to ogle the odd birds sometimes found themselves surrounded by turkeys looking for a handout. And it's hardly uncommon to see a group of toms strolling past white picket fences in relatively cosmopolitan downtowns like Kennebunk and Belfast.
So are wild turkeys in danger of becoming victims of their own success, the next Canada geese, perhaps? Almost extinct by the mid-twentieth century, Canada geese were reintroduced nationally in the 1960s and within thirty years had become a scourge on suburban lawns, golf courses, airport runways, and farm fields everywhere.
"I don't see that happening," says IF&W's Phil Bozenhard. He believes hunting pressure can control the turkey population until the natural carrying capacity of the state is established.
"We have a spring season that is exceptional," says Bozenhard, "but we probably need a fall gun season when you can take hens, too."
Turkeys mate in the spring. Only turkeys with visible "beards" — dangling chest feathers sported by most toms and about 10 percent of hens — can be shot during the spring hunt. So the birds that are harvested then tend to be disposable males. The fall archery season only nets hunters about 250 birds, but, so this line of reasoning goes, a great many more turkeys could be eliminated if hunters were allowed to use shotguns and to shoot hens as well as toms.
Bird lovers might conceivably take exception to a big fall hen hunt, but conservationists and naturalists in Maine have so far voiced little concern about the reintroduction of wild turkeys.
"I have enormous reservations about reintroducing species," says ornithologist Peter Vickery, of Richmond, co-author of A Birder's Guide to Maine. "The Canada goose was a terrible mistake. But the return of the wild turkey to part of its natural range, from a wildlife conservation perspective, has worked extremely well. It's one of the very few successes IF&W has had in terms of bird reintroduction."
And Bill Hancock, environmental centers director for the Maine Audubon Society, agrees, noting that the debate over the return of the turkey is "a territorial issue, not a conservation issue." In a state overrun with whitetail deer, Hancock says, deer hunters worry that turkeys will eat the acorns and mast the whitetails require.
Across the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, a similar territorial dispute led provincial officials to decide against the introduction of wild turkeys last December. Poultry farmers, already anxious about outbreaks of avian flu in Asia, worried that wild turkeys might introduce diseases to their flocks. A few politically powerful pheasant hunters complained that turkeys would displace their favored feathered quarry. And Nova Scotian naturalists pointed out that turkeys are not native to Nova Scotia.
"I'm sure turkeys would do well in Nova Scotia if introduced here," says Barry Sabean, Nova Scotia's director of wildlife, "but it's not going to happen in the near term."
Sabean does note, however, that Maine turkeys have reportedly begun to migrate across the border into New Brunswick, so it may just be a matter of time before Meleagris gallopavo gains a foothold in the Canadian Maritimes.
Maine wildlife officials could, of course, decide to stop relocating turkeys, at least temporarily, as California did in 1999 when the Golden State turkey population reached 250,000. But IF&W wildlife biologist Phil Bozenhard doesn't see that happening, as long as people in Aroostook County and the North Woods ask for the birds.
"Those people want birds," says Bozenhard. "We'll release birds as far north and Down East as we can until they fail. And they haven't failed yet."