Chances are, the turkey you’re about to devour this week wasn’t shot in the wild. But here’s the thing: It could have been, thanks to decades of conservation efforts.
Across the country, the wild turkey has made a remarkable comeback after plummeting numbers over the last century. Great progress has also been made in Louisiana, although the state official who oversees management of wild turkeys says there is still work to be done.
For those who have the opportunity, feasting on a wild bird at Thanksgiving offers a very different experience than the store-bought turkeys that the vast majority of the country will be shoving in the oven early Thursday. The oversized, factory-farmed birds are often not even able to fly or mate naturally due to their breeding. Wild turkeys, on the other hand, can walk 18 miles per hour and fly 50 miles per hour, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
For John Kanter of the National Wildlife Federation, wild birds have genuine flavor, not to mention a connection to the natural world, in contrast to the comparative mildness of the industrially farmed variety. His New Hampshire Thanksgiving dinner will feature a wild turkey that he hunted himself.
“Wild turkeys are considered the ultimate conservation success story because their numbers have dropped into the tens of thousands,” said Kanter, the association’s chief wildlife biologist. “And now they’re back in the millions.”
Current estimates put the number of wild turkeys nationwide at around 7 million. They’ve become so plentiful in Kanter’s New Hampshire area that he sometimes has to stop on the road for a herd to pass — essentially a turkey jam, he said.
It wasn’t a coincidence. Steeped in American lore, the shift in fate of a wild bird is due to careful management practices across the country, from strict hunting restrictions to recovery efforts.
The main reasons for the decline were overhunting and habitat loss. Urban sprawl and other forms of human development gradually took space away from the birds, while at one point hunters assumed the population was endless.
‘On the way back’
Louisiana’s earliest known turkey hunting restrictions were enacted in 1905, said Cody Cedotal, small game and turkey program manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. And even on the off chance that these rules were scrupulously followed, they were no restrictions at all compared to today’s stringent requirements.
Back then, hunters were allowed to catch 25 birds between December and March. Although the state’s turkey hunting regulations today vary slightly from region to region, no one is permitted to kill more than two birds per season, which lasts between 16 and 30 days.
The season takes place in April, which means you’ll need to freeze your quarry if you want to eat it for Thanksgiving.
“We think they’re on their way back. I don’t know if they’ve fully recovered,” Cedotal said of the Louisiana turkey population. “We saw some declines about five to eight years ago.”
Adjustments have been made in the hunting season to better accommodate the peak breeding season following these declines, he said.
“We received some encouraging news last spring,” Cedotal said. “Our harvest was the highest since 2009. That’s great. That encourages us.”
Louisiana is home to the eastern wild turkey, which Cedotal says is the largest wild bird native to the state. Their number in Louisiana was estimated as high as 1 million in the 19th century, he said.
A steep decline followed, and by the mid-20th century there were only 14 isolated flocks for a total of fewer than 1,500 birds, Cedotal wrote in its most recent annual report.
The state’s efforts to capture birds and reallocate them to suitable habitats began in 1962, he said, and it has paid off, as have similar programs across the country after some trial and error to find the best routes, Cedotal said.
The presence of wild turkeys throughout Louisiana can now be attributed to this program, he said. “Except for small, small isolated populations, everything was replenished at one point,” Cedotal said.
The state estimates that between 10,000 and 25,000 turkeys hunt in Louisiana each year. For 2022, the validated number of birds killed was almost 2,900, while the estimated number based on sampling was 9,100.
Kanter says excise taxes on guns and ammunition have played a big part in conservation efforts for species like the wild turkey. He hopes the turkey’s success story can serve as an example for other species that have received less attention.
His organization has lobbied for the passage of a federal law known as the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. One aspect of the bill would allow species whose decline is a cause for concern – albeit not yet in critical condition – to qualify for restoration funds.
“Whether it’s a wood thrush or a meadowlark or a sharp hawk or a notched turtle, there’s just so much of our wildlife that doesn’t have a source of funding,” Kanter said.