Robust return of iconic game bird has been hailed a marvel of modern conservation
Few sounds echoing through the woods are more emblematic of springtime in Tennessee than the exuberant gobble of a strutting tom turkey.
But not so long ago, that sound — along with clucks, cackles, peeps, whistles, yelps and other modes of turkey talk — was all but unheard in the wilds.
By the early 20th Century, turkeys had virtually disappeared from Tennessee. Remnant populations survived only in remote swatches of the Cumberland Plateau and Mississippi River bottomlands.
Today, however, turkey populations throughout the country appear stronger than at any time since likely before Europeans began settling North America.
And nowhere has the rebound been more impressive than Tennessee and the South. The great turkey turnaround is one of the “tremendous success stories” of American wildlife restoration efforts, said Brad Miller, a regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation.
“Particularly in the last 25 years or so, turkeys have really grown in numbers across the state,” he said. “In 1990, hunters killed a little over 2,600 birds in Tennessee. Fast forward to the year 2000, and they reported killing a little more than 22,000 in Tennessee.”
In the current decade, hunters are bagging in the neighborhood of 30,000-35,000 birds a year statewide, said Miller.
Few have a keener appreciation for the turkey’s arduous odyssey than Tim White, a biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
White’s become something of a Tennessee turkey historian, having investigated two-and-a-half centuries worth of books, statistics, articles and photos documenting the demise and recovery of turkeys across the three Grand Divisions.
He calls today’s overall robust health of today’s flocks “pretty astounding,” given what the future looked to hold in the first half of the last century.
But even well before that, turkeys were facing trouble. Throughout the mid-to-late 1700s and into the 1800s, wild turkey populations had started declining, he told the Center Hill Sun. The culprit then was primarily over-hunting.
War is Hell on Wildlife, Too
But it was the Civil War and its aftermath that set in motion the most ruinous period for the wild turkey. Habitat destruction resulting from four savage years of military operations in the South proved catastrophic for many native wild species, said White.
“The Civil War had some pretty devastating impacts on habitat and wildlife, and not just turkeys,” he said. Estimates suggest that in the years 1861-1865, Union and Confederate armies were clearing 400,000 acres of timber a year just for firewood, White said.
In the war’s aftermath, so continued the “big downward slide for a lot of wildlife, like elk and passenger pigeons that went extinct,” he said. “Deer and turkeys were really hit hard, too.”
“People killed and ate pretty much anything that they could find. There was widespread poverty,” he said. “Most everything was in pretty serious decline.”
Under the Deadening Chestnut Tree
Yet the the nadir was still to come.
Another decimating shock started taking shape in the early years of the 20th Century: The appearance of the chestnut blight. Over the course of the ensuing four decades, virtually all the mature, native chestnut trees in the eastern United States were felled by the disease. Prior to the blight, as many as one in every four or five trees in American hardwood forests are thought to have been chestnuts.
“The chestnut was really common in the Southeast back in the day,” said White. “It was a really important food source — and it was suddenly gone.”
To make matters worse, as the chestnut die-off was climaxing, the Great Depression commenced. And just as in the aftermath of the Civil War, destitute-stricken rural populations often turned to hunting wild meat for basic sustenance, or selling for extra money.
“Everything seemed to be working against the turkey back then,” said White. “The forests had been obliterated all across the Southeast. By the end of the 1930s, we were pretty well at a low point with wildlife — not just in the Southeast but probably everywhere.”
Hatching Restoration Plans
For the entire decade of the forties, turkey hunting was banned in Tennessee. But White said few probably took much notice: There were hardly any birds left to kill anyway.
Over roughly the same period, more than 3,700 pen‐reared “wild” turkeys were released across the state, 200 at a time. Most all succumbed to predation or disease or the general rigors of nature, and the stocking of the quasi-domesticated turkeys was halted in the early fifties.
White sees 1949 as the beginning of the bounce-back for turkeys. With the state Legislature’s formation of the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission as a stand-alone agency, more focus and technology was brought to bear on restoration, and regulation of hunting became a primary concern.
Still, the 50s were lean times. Conservation officers at the time reported turkeys absent in more than half of Tennessee. In many of the counties where turkeys were confirmed to exist, sightings were “very rare.”
But things were actually starting to look up.
Wildlife managers in 1951 began attempting to trap both deer and turkeys for transplant, a strategy that would ultimately prove essential for reintroduction efforts across Tennessee. But it was slow going at first, especially for turkeys. It took three years before state officials actually even caught one. According to White, just 119 birds had been relocated by 1960.
However, new systems of trapping would soon prove revolutionary.
The black powder cannon-net — which was later upgraded to a military-grade rocket-net — propelled out when fired and descended upon an unsuspecting flock of feeding birds. The turkeys could then be efficiently captured, tranquilized and transported to new environs.
There’s unmistakable irony in the fact that explosive-driven projectiles, much so responsible for disintegrating wild turkey flocks, did also ensure the revered bird’s extraordinary resurgence.
Even so, the net method still wasn’t an overnight success, and had its ups and downs. In his book, “Boxes, Rockets, and Pens: A History of Wildlife Recovery in Tennessee,” Doug Markham describes how even the howitzer powder-powered net mortars didn’t always work. “If you blinked your eyes, you missed it,” said one former wildlife management official interviewed for Markham’s book. “But even as fast as the rocket nets were, we still had turkeys outrun them.”
Rebound and Recovery
As the years wore on, though, the successes started to mount.
All told, according to White, more than 11,000 turkeys were trapped and relocated in the second half of the 20th Century. The wildly successful programed was ceased in 1999 because it was deemed to achieved the goal of bringing sustainably reproducing, harvestable turkey populations back to all 95 of Tennessee’s counties.
According to National Wild Turkey Federation population estimates, Tennessee is now one of the top states in the nation in turkey populations.
Although calculating accurate aggregate turkey numbers is difficult, NWTF’s 2015 “Spring Hunting Guide” put Tennessee’s statewide flock at 315,000. Only five states had higher totals — Texas with 500,000, Alabama with 400,00, Kansas with 350,000, Georgia with 335,000 and Missouri with 317,000.
“Although the wild turkey once was found only in isolated pockets and inaccessible areas, populations now occupy more square miles of habitat than any other game bird in North America,” concluded an NWTF publication summing up the turkey’s sensational history. “The restoration is truly a modern conservation marvel that is a credit to the wild turkey’s adaptability to a variety of climatic and habitat conditions, as well as to the great bird’s ability to respond well to modern management.”
(Note: The feature image at the top of this story is a portrait titled “Sons of Thunder” by Ryan Kirby. The National Wild Turkey Federation named Kirby its Stamp Print Artist of the Year for 2016. His work is available for purchase at ryankirbyart.com.)