Five hundred years ago, the woodlands and river bottoms of North America were filled with a baffling cacophony every spring: the purrs, cackles and booming, almost supernatural mating gobbles of what the National Wild Turkey Federation estimates to have been 10 million wild turkeys. The hardy, protein-rich turkey was harvested by Indigenous peoples from coast to coast; it was even domesticated by the Aztecs. In Massachusetts, turkeys were hunted by local tribes by the thousand per day according to one colonial chronicler. The turkey would go on to become a favorite of White colonists and the central dish of Thanksgiving, even though there is no evidence they were eaten by the Pilgrims at the first such celebration in 1621.
European settlers saw turkeys as an unlimited resource, but by the 1930s, wild turkeys numbered about 30,000 in the United States — by some estimates, fewer than the number of polar bears left on Earth today. Rampant subsistence hunting and logging that destroyed their habitats had put the bird on the verge of extinction.
The birds’ dwindling numbers didn’t go unnoticed. In the early 20th century, citizen conservationists such as Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold realized the descriptions of history books and settlers’ accounts of plentiful wildlife — not just turkeys — bore no resemblance to their experiences in the eerily quiet wilds mostly bereft of game. They sensed it didn’t have to be this way.
Their love for the outdoors, as hunters, became a factor in saving the country’s dwindling wildlife. In a paradox to all but anyone who has used a gun, bow, or even rod and reel to honor an animal by killing and eating it, they loved the animals they hunted deeply. They passed laws to protect them, shortening hunting seasons and encouraging hunters to target older “trophy” males that contribute less to breeding and population growth. And Roosevelt led the way in protecting millions of square miles of habitat in national parks and state forests.
The political will for most of these programs — and the dollars to fund them— has come overwhelmingly from hunters. In 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act funded the United States’ newfound commitment to wildlife management by taxing firearms, ammunition and archery equipment. More than $18 billion (in 2018 dollars) has gone to seeding money for state-based conservation efforts from Pittman-Robertson alone.
The excise taxes sportspeople pay on guns and ammunition as well as the fees for hunting and fishing licenses and permits provide 80 percent of wildlife funding for state agencies. These conservation dollars fund the restoration of habitats and species such as the bald eagle, striped bass and elk as well as wildlife law enforcement and access to public land.
There is perhaps no greater beneficiary of the modern, hunter-led conservation than the wild turkey. In 1973, hunters started the National Wild Turkey Federation, which raised hundreds of millions of dollars from private citizens and accelerated the reintroduction of the birds across the United States and restoring millions of acres of habitat. They applied the hard-won lessons of on-the-ground efforts (farm-raised turkeys rarely survived in the wild, for example, but wild turkeys trapped by cannon-fired nets did, even when reintroduced in faraway places) and shared them with state wildlife agencies.
Turkey biologists estimate there are between 6 million and 7 million wild turkeys in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Every state but Alaska has successful, huntable populations of birds. Populations are steadily increasing, creating more awkward encounters with the notoriously stubborn bird, such as those in Anacostia. While there are some worrying trends, such as a perplexing decline in hatch rates and poult (young turkey) in the Southeast, we should surpass the 10 million birds that lived on the continent in 1500 within the next few decades.
At a time when bird populations are plummeting — there’s been a net decrease of nearly 3 billion adult birds since 1970 — the wild turkey is a rare but important bright spot in wildlife management.
Those of us who hunt care deeply for wildlife, their habitats, and the food we harvest and then eat. After the continent’s populations of buffalo, duck, elk, deer, bear and wild turkey were brought to near extinction in the late 19th century after generations of wanton killing for food and hides, it was hunters and sportsmen who stopped the slaughter and engineered the most successful and progressive wildlife management program in the world.
If you’re fortunate enough to see a wild turkey in your neighborhood or local park, remember that it’s a marvel — and remember who made it possible.