By Laura and Hal Mahan
Last week we were eating breakfast in our home in Chunns Cove, a neighborhood only a mile or so from downtown Asheville, when we noticed 13 wild turkeys strutting across our neighbor’s yard. They have become a daily sight, pecking at newly-sown grass seeds or picking up an occasional acorn or insect. Like a robin, one was busy extracting a large earthworm from the ground. They are not shy; they accompany us on our walks up the street and sometimes race toward our puzzled cocker spaniel. We never tire of seeing this magnificent bird, the eastern wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo sylvestris, our largest game bird.
Yet, forty-plus years ago they were so scarce that even hunters nearly gave up searching for them. These wild native birds have made a tremendous resurgence from an all-time low of only 2,000 birds in all of North Carolina in 1970, to an estimated 265,000 in 2016. How was such a comeback possible?
Restocking and habitat improvements made a huge difference. Birds that were plentiful in one area were captured with nets shot out by small cannons and then released in areas where the improved natural habitat would support them. Since 1953, according to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, 6,031 wild turkeys have been released on 358 restoration sites across the state.
Wild turkeys are among our most noble birds. They were held in such esteem by our early settlers that many felt that the wild turkey should be designated as our national emblem. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin went so far as to nominate them, but they lost out by one vote in Congress to the bald eagle.
Most male gobblers are huge, attaining weights of up to 20 pounds at maturity; females weigh only half that. Gobblers appear darker because the tips of their body feathers are black. More distinctive in separating the sexes is the sharp spur on the backs of the legs of males.
Females lay eggs from mid-April to mid-May here in the mountains. Turkeys nest on the ground, usually in heavily wooded habitats. They roost at night in large trees and can fly quite fast for short distances. They may range over several hundred acres in search of food, or only a few acres if food is plentiful (as it must be in Chunns Cove).
Here in the Appalachians, turkeys are hunted during a regulated season of four weeks, beginning in mid- April. Successful hunters attempt to imitate a variety of turkey vocalizations. Experts claim that these birds have six distinct calls: the alarm call (“putt”), the cluck, the yelp, the whistle (resembles “keekee”), the tree “yelp” and, of course, the well-known “gobble” of the adult male.
Wild turkeys may live for up to 12 years in captivity, but biologists believe that most live for an average of only two years in the wild.
Whatever their history, we are proud to have such noble creatures again in our lives.
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit compleatnaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.