Monday, November 25, 2013

Turkey Time in New Jersey

Wild turkey hen with poults (chicks)           Photo: Kevin Cole via Wikimedia

Turkeys are the symbolically American bird - at least when November rolls around. Experts say the nation’s wild turkey population has rebounded from about 300,000 in the early 1950s to an estimated seven million now.

In fact, in our area of the country, they have rebounded so much that they are sometimes viewed more a nuisance - as with the case of some turkeys on New York’s Staten Island.

Though we associate turkeys with that first Thanksgiving in Virginia, Wild turkeys evolved on the North and South American Continents exclusively and became a great game bird for Indians and settlers. Indians of the American Southwest, Mexico and Central America first hunted the wild turkey and also domesticated them. Spanish Explorers enjoyed them so much they took Mexican turkeys back to Europe in the 1500s.

Usually, we see wild turkeys from a bit of distance in suburban areas, but occasionally they can be aggressive. They will sometimes peck at windows, automobile mirrors or reflections in shiny surfaces (like your nicely polished car).

You won't find turkeys on the NJ endangered or threatened species list,because the Division of Fish and Wildlife started a Turkey Restoration Project in 1977 in cooperation with the New Jersey State Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Wild turkeys had been extirpated from New Jersey by the mid-1800s because of their use as food and increasing loss of habitat. Reintroducing 22 birds in 1977 was so successful that we now have an current population is estimated at over 20,000.

Wild turkeys are found throughout the state wherever there is suitable habitat. Even in South Jersey, where wild turkeys had been struggling just a few years ago, intensive restoration efforts have improved population numbers significantly.

You will find rafters (flocks of turkeys) more commonly in rural areas of the state where these omnivorous eaters can forage. They prefer eating acorns, nuts, and various trees, including hazel, chestnut, hickory, and pinyon pine as well as various seeds, berries such as juniper and bearberry, roots and insects. Turkeys also occasionally consume amphibians and small reptiles such as lizards and snakes. Poults (chicks) have been observed eating insects, berries, and seeds.

Wild turkeys often feed in cow pastures, sometimes visit back yard bird feeders, and favor croplands after harvest to scavenge seed on the ground. Turkeys are also known to eat a wide variety of grasses.

Early morning and late afternoon are the desired times for eating.

If we have a harsh winter, they can survive up to two weeks without eating. But then they will move into more populated areas.

Neither endangered or threatened in NJ, there is legal hunting of wild turkeys regulated by the State Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. The 2013 spring wild turkey hunting season (April 20 - May 24) had a total harvest of 3,073 male wild turkeys, up 1.4% from 2012. The fall hunting season was from Oct. 26 to Nov. 2, 2013, so NJ wild turkeys are safe this Thanksgiving week.

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