Wild Turkeys Peaked In ’01, But Still Plentiful

Wild Turkeys Peaked In ’01, But Still Plentiful


Edition of Thursday-Friday, Nov. 27-28, 2014

In 1962, 30 turkeys were reintroduced to Milford, and they’re still plentiful along Route 28. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.life)
In 1962, 30 turkeys were reintroduced to Milford, and they’re still plentiful along Route 28. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.life)

It’s Thanksgiving, and that means turkey – but not just on your plate.

Take a drive anywhere in Otsego County and chances are you’ll see a few wild turkeys waddling across harvested field pecking leftover corn. “They’re a popular bird,” said Michael Schiavone, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “People really enjoy seeing them.”

They’re also a popular treat on the dinner table, with 100,000 hunters statewide purchasing permits and licenses. “They’re still hunting turkeys around here, that’s for sure,” said Cheryl Shackleton, Oneonta town clerk.

“It’s more flavorful than a domestic turkey like you’d buy at the store,” said Schiavone. “Store-bought turkey is pretty bland. That’s why we have to do so much to it.”

But it wasn’t always so easy to spot – or hunt – a tasty turkey Upstate, although they may have pre-dated human settlers. Still, for nearly 100 years, they were extinct from Binghamton to Lake Placid.

“It started with the European settlers clearing land and destroying the turkeys’ habitat,” Schiavone said. “There were no hunting regulations or season and settlers brought over domestic poultry diseases, so  by 1850, there were no wild turkeys left.”

And it stayed that way until 1940, when a small flock of turkeys was discovered in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. “The terrain wasn’t easy to clear for timber, so they sought refuge there,” said the biologist.

In 1948, the Conservation Department, DEC’s predecessor, began netting and relocating the birds to different areas in New York. And in 1961, the first turkey, brought in from Schoharie County, was released in Worcester. The following year, 30 more were released in Milford. They thrived. By 2001, the statewide population peaked at 300,000 birds.

Turkeys favor “mixed terrain,” seeking lightly forested areas to dig their nests and old fields to find insects, acorns and grain to eat. “That’s where you’ll find the best turkey densities,” Schiavone said.

And though they seem plentiful, the population statewide is actually on a decline. Cold, wet springs have upset the breeding and nesting cycle and predators, including skunks, raccoons and foxes, have arisen to eat eggs and birds. “Everybody likes the taste of turkey,” he said.

But it’s no cause for worry, he said. “They’re still abundant – it’s just natural population contraction.”

He estimates that between 160,000 and 180,000 turkeys roam New York State today. And while it is legal to hunt turkeys in the spring and fall, the DEC is working on amending hunting regulations for hens in the fall, in light of the below-average spring nest production. “We want to modify the hunting schedule to keep the population in line,” he said.