The final Thursday in November became the customary date of Thanksgiving in the 1800s. Ironically, at the same time, wild turkeys vanished from Maine.
Wildlife biologists believe that the extirpation of turkeys from Maine in the 1800s was due to shrinking forest habitat, a result of settlers clearing land for farming and pastureland. Also, with unrestricted hunting, people harvested the delicious game birds for the dinner table year round.
Yet today, in the 2000s, the wild turkey population is high in Maine, said Brad Allen, Bird Group Leader at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“I think it’s safe to say because of management efforts and the birds’ own pioneering effort we now have turkeys in every county in Maine,” Allen said.
Attempts to reintroduce turkeys to Maine began in 1942 when the Department of Inland Fisheries and Game released 24 farm-raised wild turkeys on Swan Island. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, when biologists relocated truly wild turkeys from Vermont to Maine, that the population started to climb.
“We think long and hard about re-establishing a native species that was lost because of man’s influence,” he said. “We didn’t think they’d do as well as they did. We’ve been humbled by their ability to survive farther north than we expected in the number we’ve been seeing.”
The first spring turkey hunting season in Maine was held in 1986 in York County. That year, 500 hunters carried permits, acquired through a lottery.
Because of the expanding population, in 2005, all 23,951 applicants received a permit. And starting in 2006, spring and fall wild turkey permits became available over the counter.
“They’re very visible … so a lot of people I think have the misconception that because they see 60 turkeys in a field that we must have millions of them in the woods,” he said. “But what you see is kind of what you get.”
In 2011, 5,445 wild turkeys were harvested in Maine. DIF&W multiplies that number by 10 to estimate that the state is now home to approximately 60,000 wild turkeys. The simple equation used by turkey biologists throughout the eastern states, Allen said.
“[The wild turkey population] is high right now — it’s a very high level,” said Allen. “But I don’t see it skyrocketing much more. The trend is remaining at that level. And we don’t anticipate it to dip off unless we have the winter of the century.”
While wild turkeys can weather extreme cold, they struggle when deep snow prevents them from accessing food.
“These birds will sit in a tree for days and days and literally starve to death and fall out of the tree [during deep snow conditions],” Allen said.
They also often fall prey to Maine’s larger carnivores, such as bobcats, fishers and coyotes. And their eggs are eaten by smaller predators such as skunks and raccoons.
The DIF&W, along with volunteers and members of the National Wild Turkey Federation, is continuing to trap and move turkeys north for bird watchers and hunters of the County to enjoy.
Wild turkey tidbits, according to the Maine DIF&W:
• The wild turkey is North America’s largest upland game bird. The average adult females weigh 8-12 pounds, and the adult males weigh 10-20 pounds, but have been recorded in excess of 25 pounds.
• The heads of gobblers (adult males) are generally blue with a hint of pink and red, but the colors can change with the mood of the bird.
• If a turkey footprint exceeds 4 inches in length, it was probably made by a tom (male turkey).
• Turkeys can fly up to 60 miles per hour and a distance of 1 mile.
• Wild turkeys may live as long as 10 years.
• Hens and their poults (young) join other hens and poults to form flocks of 6-25 birds (occasionally up to 50 birds) during late summer, fall and winter.
• Adult toms usually remain loners, but groups of two to five toms of mixed ages are often seen when it’s not breeding season, which occurs during April and May.
• To hunt wild turkey in Maine, you need a permit ($20 for Maine residents and $54 for nonresidents) and a valid hunting license that allows hunting of big game. The spring wild turkey hunting season is April 30-June 2; and the fall season spans from Sept. 27-Oct. 26 but varies depending on the geographical zone and the weapon being used.
For information on wild turkeys in Maine, visit www.maine.gov/ifw/wildlife/species/wild_turkey/index.htm.