Thursday, November 23, 2023

Wild turkeys are disappearing, and Thanksgiving has nothing to do with it In many parts of the country, turkeys are on the decline in the wild — but scientists aren’t sure why. (WaPo)

Happy Thanksgiving!  Sounds like developers gobbling up habitat is one of the reasons for the decline of wild turkeys.  The grounds of the St. Johns County Growth Management (sic) Department are home to a number of wild turkeys.  Spare parts for the mendacious mis-managers inside the building? You tell me. 

Wild turkeys are disappearing, and Thanksgiving has nothing to do with it 

In many parts of the country, turkeys are on the decline in the wild — but scientists aren’t sure why

(Illustration by Emily Sabens/The Washington Post; iStock)
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It isn’t hard to find turkey on Thanksgiving,with Americans cookingtens of millions of farm-raised birds every year.

But in the wild? Turkeys aren’t doing so hot.

Wild turkeys are on the decline in many parts of the country, baffling biologists who study the gobblers that Benjamin Franklin once lauded as a “Bird of Courage.”

For those living in areas where there are so many turkeys they cause traffic jams and raid grain silos, the idea that turkey numbers are actually dropping may seem far-fetched.

But biologists say the nation’s turkey population may have gone down by about 1 million, or nearly 15 percent, between 2004 and 2014, with much of that decline in parts of the South and Midwest. Between 2014 and 2019, turkey numbers dipped a further 3 percent, though researchers caution that there are gaps in the data.

“A lot of the things that have changed across our society and across our landscape over the past, say, 30 years have benefited a lot of species,” said Michael Chamberlain, a University of Georgia wildlife professor who tries to tally turkey populations.

“But turkeys are not one of them.”

A wild turkey crosses a road in the Parker National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Newbury, Mass. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Scientists are exploring a few possible causes — habitat loss, hunting, disease, climate change. “We don’t know,” said Christopher Moorman, a wildlife ecology professor at North Carolina State University. “There are a variety of theories.”

But one thing is clear: The puzzling decline, if it continues, threatens to undo a conservation success story that brought back the ungainly Thanksgiving icon from the brink of extinction.

Researchers aren’t just talking turkey. Across the United States and Canada, the population of all birds has plummeted by nearly 3 billion, a drop of more than a quarter since 1970. It is not just rare birds that are vanishing. Once-common species, like the turkey, are becoming less common, a distressing signal about the way humans are warming the planet and altering the environment.

“Turkeys are not unique,” Chamberlain said.

A turkey comeback

Long before that first Thanksgiving feast in 1621, Native Americans had been hunting turkey — eating its meat, fashioning feathers into blankets and robes, and using its bones to make spoons and arrowheads.

European colonists, too, admired and ate the awkward bird. Franklin described the turkey as “a little vain & silly” but praised it as “much more respectable” than the bald eagle. (Contrary to popular belief, Franklin never suggested that the turkey supplant the eagle as a national symbol.)

Unlike the Native Americans, the colonists were relentless, driving the wild turkey toward extinction by chopping down forests for timber and hunting the birds year-round. Around the start of the 20th century, what was once one of North America’s most abundant land fowls had nearly vanished for good.

Turkeys mounted a comeback after World War II, as forests grew back and wildlife managers captured and moved wild birds to repopulate the countryside. At their peak around 2004, as many as 7 million turkeys trotted across the land, in every state except Alaska.

Chamberlain first noticed that something was wrong while looking through turkey data reported by states. “If you look from one year to the next, you really didn’t see any concern. But when you started looking at productivity data across 20 years, it became pretty clear that something was amiss.”

‘Everything eats them’

It’s hard out there for a turkey. Bobcats, coyotes, raccoons — all of them want to gobble up turkeys, especially when they are young and can’t fly.

“They’re little chicken nuggets running around. Everything eats them,” said Wesley Boone, a wildlife biologist at North Carolina State University.

So one potential reason behind the decline is a rise in turkey-eating predators. The populations of birds of prey, for instance, rebounded after the federal government banned the use of the pesticide DDT.

A wild turkey walks through tall grass in Freeport, Maine, in 2021. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

Hawks and owls are “rightfully protected and have been for quite some time,” Chamberlain said. “But that protection that we’ve afforded them allows their populations to increase, and they’re also important predators of turkeys.”

To survive, turkeys need a lot from the land. That leads to another possible cause for the decline: shrinking habitat.

During the late-winter and early-spring mating season, toms need open space to strut their stuff and find a mate. Hens, meanwhile, need enough vegetation to hide their eggs and give their chicks insects to munch in the summer. And in the fall, turkeys depend on mature trees in order to roost and eat nuts.

With so much land converted into parking lots or industrial-scale farms, many turkeys lack that habitat. And woodlands that do remain often don’t have that variety of low grasslands, shrub lands and tall trees that turkeys need through the seasons.

Mark Hatfield, national director of conservation services at the National Wild Turkey Federation, wants to see more prescribed burning of foreststo give turkeys a “checkerboard” of open space and dense vegetation. “Turkeys thrive on disturbance,” he said. “They need to have habitat available at all different stages.”

Searching for answers

Another potential pressure on the turkey population is hunting, which provides many with a source of protein that’s leaner than farm-raised birds but also reduces the wild population.

In recent years, some state wildlife agencies have altered hunting seasons to boost turkey numbers. Tennessee, for instance, reduced the number of turkeys that each hunter can take and delayed the start of the spring hunting season by two weeks to give the birds time to breed.

The problem, said Roger Shields, wild turkey program coordinator at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, is that those changes have yet to improve the turkey’s reproductive success, according to research in the south-central portion of the state.

Two tom turkeys look for attention from the hens of the flock. (Jens Lambert/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“I’ll admit I was a little disappointed,” Shields said. “I, as much as anybody, am just wanting some kind of understanding.”

Shields added that looking for a single “silver bullet” solution may be a fool’s errand. “I don’t know that there’s just one thing that’s going on,” he said. “It may be a bunch of things all adding together.”

And it’s possible that the turkey recovery has gone well enough that the ecosystem has reached its limit for turkeys. “If that’s the cause, it’s hopeful in that there’s no nefarious thing going on,” Shields said.

Turkeys in a warmer world

And then, of course, there is climate change, which could impact turkeys going forward.

A study published in July in the journal Climate Change Ecology found that turkeys don’t shift their nesting times much as temperatures and precipitation change, potentially causing chicks to miss out on plant cover and a buffet of insects if the spring bloom starts earlier.

Wild turkeys parade down an alley in Minneapolis. (Anthony Souffle/AP)

“We shouldn’t be an alarmist yet,” said Moorman, who conducted the study with Boone and Chamberlain. “We should just keep an eye on it.”

And climate change may not be all bad for the bird. Some populations are creeping northward as temperatures rise and as the snow cover that limits their ability to find food decreases.

For now, scientists like Chamberlain will continue to field questions from worried hunters who are seeing fewer birds. Enough are concerned for him to amass a 51,000-person following under the handle @wildturkeydoc on Instagram.

“I’ve literally been asked about every topic involving turkeys you can imagine,” he said.

This article is part of Animalia, a column exploring the strange and fascinating world of animals and the ways in which we appreciate, imperil and depend on them.

Dino Grandoni is a reporter covering wildlife, biodiversity and other climate and environmental issues. He is the author of Animalia, a column exploring the strange and fascinating world of animals. Twitter


Anonymous said...

Every single problem today can be traced back to a conservative Republican. Whether they act or don't act, the result is the same disaster.

Anonymous said...

Gaza Thanksgiving:
Killed: At least 14,532
Including at least:
6,000 children
4,000 women
Injured: At least 35,000
With more than 75 percent of them children and women
Missing: At least 6,800

Anonymous said...

Republicans don't give a shit about anyone but themselves once they reach age 18. They give a shit for a fee. Just remember that always. They care for the right price and it helps if you're making someone else money as well. That's a bonus.