Wild Turkeys

Looking at the wild turkeys seen throughout Vermont, you wouldn’t think that at one time there were no wild turkeys in Vermont. Due to clearing of their natural habitat, they totally died off. This portion of a Vermont Fish and Wildlife brochure describes how they became extinct, how they came back, and their current condition. It has been added to with contributions from Bev Lasure and others to add Hartland’s involvement.

Once extinct in Vermont, the turkey population is triving due to conservation actions.

Once extinct in Vermont, the turkey population is triving due to conservation actions.

Predators

Wild turkeys are prey to a long list of predators including coyotes, bobcats, foxes, fisher, weasels, skunks, opossum, raccoons, snakes, hawks, owls, dogs, and people. As a major prey species, the turkey fulfills it natural role in the ecosystem by providing sustenance for other animals.

Through the process of natural selection, wild turkeys have co-evolved with predators over millions of years. In this long, evolutionary process, predators have had a tremendous influence in shaping the development and behavior of the wild turkey. Producing large numbers of young, re-nesting (laying another clutch of eggs if the first set is destroyed), roosting in trees, and flocking, are all survival strategies resulting from eons of predation. Many of the qualities that people admire about wild turkeys, such as their incredible eyesight, wariness, and ability to detect movement, are the product of evolution with natural predators.

Many people express concern that predators will harm the turkey population. It is clear that in spite of predation, our turkey population in Vermont continues to flourish.

Management Efforts

Early settlers cleared Vermont forests for farmland and lumber. By the mid-1800s, more than 75% of Vermont was open land. As a result, wildlife habitat was scarce, especially the forests that turkeys needed to survive. By 1854, the last of Vermont’s turkeys disappeared. Loss of habitat and uncontrolled hunting wiped them out.

In the 1950s a private effort by well meaning people and fish and game clubs to reestablish turkeys in Vermont, included the release of hundreds of “game farm” turkeys throughout the state. Most of these birds were several generations removed form the wild, and therefore lacked the ability to survive Vermont’s rugged winters. No game farm turkeys succeeded in establishing populations in Vermont.

Following these attempts, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department investigated the possibility of reintroducing wild turkeys to Vermont. The department worked with the New York State Conservation Department to trap wild turkeys during the winter of 1969 - 1970. The first winter’s trapping captured 17 turkeys that were released in Pawlet, Vermont. The second winter of trapping resulted in 14 birds that were released in Hubbardton, Vermont.

These initial populations expanded rapidly, both in number and occupied area. In 1973, the population was estimated at more than 600 turkeys. Since 1973, additional efforts and the refinement of trapping equipment enabled Vermont Fish & Wildlife staff to capture as many as 100 turkeys in one trapping season for release in various areas of the state.

Hartland’s Involvement

The Hartland Fish and Game Club has been significant part of life in Hartland for many years. Hial Lobdell graciously let the members use an outbuilding on his property for several years to hold meetings.

Wild turkeys became almost extinct in Vermont. The State of Vermont offered wild turkeys to the various clubs for release into the wild. The Hartland Fish and Game club accepted the offer and in the 60’s got their batch. The Hartland Historical Society has pictures of this event. They show Hial Lobdell, Lee Lasure and others releasing the birds.

The Hartland Fish and Game Club maintains the Hammond Cove shooting Range in town along the Connecticut River.

If anyone else can add information to this article please email me, Bev Lasure, at info@hartlandhistory.org. You can either write the information down for me to interpret or add to the article. The Hartland Fish and Game has played an important part in more recent history and it would be nice to preserve information. I know that at one time we had the original incorporation papers at home and we had Avery Howe come to the house and pick them up so that they would stay with club records. Someone surely know more information about this organization than I can remember.

Hunting Season Reestablished

A spring turkey-hunting season was established in 1973. This was the first time wild turkeys had been hunted in Vermont in more than a century. Fall “either sex” turkey hunting began in 1975. Spring and fall hunting seasons have continued every year since. Both spring and fall turkey seasons provide a recreational opportunity for hunters and serve as a population management tool.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vermont’s turkey population remained relatively stable, at an estimated 9,000 to 12, 000 birds. Unusually harsh winters reduced the population in 1993-1994, but a combination of limited hunting seasons and milder winters caused the population to rebound quickly. Vermont’s turkey population has risen each year since 1994 to its highest level in recent history, and is now estimated at some 35, 000 birds.

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 affect survival. Long-term population trends, however, are most influenced by changes in habitat and the overall landscape. Relatively mature forests now dominate 80% of the state, with only about 15% in an open, non-forested condition, such as croplands, hay fields, or 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.

Agricultural lands on active farms provide most of the remaining open acreage in the state that is ideal habitat for wild turkeys. As the number of Vermont farms declines and the trend toward increased forestation continues, availability of open land may increasingly limit habitat for wild turkeys. Keeping active working dairy farms in Vermont will help maintain excellent wild turkey habitat.

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