Eastern wild turkeys in Vermont

Autumn has arrived and so begins the holiday season and thoughts of friendly gatherings, food, food and more food. Thanksgiving is coming up, and just the thought makes my mind wander to the wild turkey population in Vermont. I am a lover of animals and enjoy seeing the wild populations roaming around from time to time. I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn more about the Eastern wild turkey and provide some information that may not be widely known.

The Eastern wild turkey did not always enjoy healthy populations within Vermont. In fact, during the 19th century, they had disappeared from the region. This was caused by habitat loss and farming practices that had clear-cut forests from most of the state. There was hope for the future of the wild turkey, however. According to an article in the Burlington Free Press, “The revival of the birds in Vermont grew from the release of turkeys in Rutland County during the winters of 1969-70 and 1970-71. A total of 31 were released during that time. The state now has a population estimated at 45,000 to 50,000 birds from one end of the state to the other.”

Relatively mature forests now dominate 80 percent of the state, with only about 15 percent in an open, non-forested condition, such as croplands, hay fields and pastures. Although the wild turkey is primarily regarded as a forest dwelling bird, ideal habitat conditions include a mix of forest and agricultural land, which provides the greatest opportunities for feeding, nesting and brooding. “Keeping active working dairy farms in Vermont will help maintain excellent wild turkey habitat,” according the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Fish and Wildlife also describes the birds as “social birds who prefer to live and travel together in groups called flocks. From year to year the number of wild turkeys in Vermont will fluctuate because of a combination of random environmental factors, such as weather changes that affect nesting success, or severity of the winter that affects survival. Long-term population trends, however, are most influenced by changes in habitat and the overall landscape.” The wild turkey survives on a diet that consists of a variety of insects, plants, fruits, nuts and seeds. And they are surprisingly fast: they can run at a speed of 25 miles per hour and fly at a speed of 30 to 35 miles per hour.

Not everyone is a fan of the wild turkey, however. They can be known to disturb properties, eat feed meant for other birds and occasionally become aggressive towards humans.

Currently, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department heads management plans for the wild turkey and has strict guidelines for hunting the bird. If wild turkeys have become a nuisance, Fish and Wildlife has a “turkey damage control regulation that has been promulgated as another method to help address the nuisance issue. Under the ‘turkey damage rule’ a landowner under game warden supervision may take a pre-approved number of offending turkeys that have been determined to have caused repeated or substantial damage to cultivated crops.” Local National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) members can also assist in quelling wild turkey/human conflicts. If all else fails, Fish and Wildlife devotes a page on various non-violent resources that can be used if a wildlife species becomes a nuisance.

Whether a fan of the wild turkey or not, the revival of the bird is one of Vermont’s wildlife restoration success stories. Vermont has even moved forward with helping other states restore their wild turkey populations. The wild turkey has long served as a major icon of the American culture. As such, I hope that now when you sit down to enjoy your turkey meal, there will be a newfound love and respect for the bird that is such an American icon.

Erika MacPherson is a board member of the Charlotte Conservation Commission. The commission meets on the fourth Tuesday of the month. All are welcome.