Sunday, November 30, 2014

Jersey Wild Turkeys

Tired of turkey talk? What about wild turkeys?

They are not endangered in New Jersey. In fact, nationwide there were only 100,000 turkeys in the wild in the 1950s, but today there are an estimated 3 million of them in the wild.

A form of our wild turkey has been on the planet in one form or another for 10 million years.

If you live in suburban New Jersey, you might view turkeys as not being terribly "wild" as they might wander in your driveway or walk up the neighborhood sidewalk. Hunters know that wild turkeys are quite elusive and clever in evading hunters. The wild turkey can see five times better than a person and hear up to eight times more accurately than humans.

Wild turkeys - not so much the suburban variety - avoid humans. They can and will take flight to avoid you and can fly at speeds up to 55 miles an hour. They can run at speeds up to 25 miles an hour.

We all know the questionable fable of the first Thanksgiving, but turkeys were game birds for the Native Americans and colonists. The early Spanish Explorers enjoyed them so much they took Mexican Turkeys back to Europe in the 1500’s.

But by the mid-1800s, turkeys had disappeared in New Jersey due to habitat changes and over-hunting.

The Division of Fish and Wildlife started a successful Turkey Restoration Project in 1977 in cooperation with the NJ Chapter of the NJ Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation and reintroduced wild turkeys starting with 22 birds. The following year, biologists and technicians began to live-trap and re-locate birds to establish populations throughout the state.

In the wild, turkeys have become widely distributed and flocks (known as rafters) are common in backyards and in the woods, parks and along roadsides. Part of that recovery during the early 20th century also occurred because abandoned farms and some saved woodlands allowed a wild turkey comeback.

Wild turkeys are very adaptable and thrive almost anywhere. They do like oak forests and patches of woods near farmlands and suburbs which provide additional food. They are present in South Jersey too, though not in as great a number.

New Jersey's turkey population had grown large enough to support a spring hunting season and a limited fall season began in 1997. Wild turkeys are now abundant throughout the New Jersey, with the Division of Fish & Wildlife estimating the population at 20,000 to 23,000 birds.

I am most likely to see them in my suburban north Jersey non-hunting area in the early morning when they are foraging in or near a wooded reservation nearby. But these omnivores venture down sidewalks in search of insects, acorns and nuts, plant buds, salamanders, snails, mosses and underground plant bulbs.

Wild turkeys don't migrate and are are in New Jersey all year round. If it's a tough, snowy winter, they can last as long as two weeks without eating. Different foods are preferred during the four seasons, so turkeys may use different areas in the winter than they do during the spring and summer and so they may seem to have "just moved in" to your neighborhood.

About turkey hunting seasons in New Jersey,
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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