October 19, 2018
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Maine’s turkey population is booming. But are they a nuisance or ‘good wildlife story?’

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Wild turkeys forage in an apple orchard in Eddington on a recent morning.

Move over, squirrels: it’s time to talk turkey.

Although the furry rodent has been in the limelight recently for an apparent population explosion, lots of Mainers have been noticing another animal that seems to be in extreme abundance. That’s the wild turkey, which has been spotted in fields, forests, backyards, gardens, farms and roadsides all over the state.

“Turkeys are everywhere, son of a gun,” Fred Huntress, a retired forester from Poland, said this week. “We’ve got flocks of 30, 40, 50 turkeys roaming around the fields. They’re everywhere.”

Whether or not that’s a good thing for the state is a matter of personal opinion (for the record, Huntress is not in favor of the reintroduced bird, which he describes as an “invasive pest”). But the large population of the birds this summer and fall seem to be beyond dispute. Love them or hate them, wild turkeys are here, and Mainers are finding ways to coexist with the many flocks of North America’s largest upland game birds that have moved into their neighborhoods. But it’s not always easy to do, as turkeys can wreak real havoc on gardens and orchards. But sometimes they are unfairly singled out for blame, according to biologists.

“I don’t have a magic answer for that,” Brad Allen, the bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said Tuesday. “They’re not as deleterious, as problem-causing, as people imagine. If you and I owned a blueberry field and 100 turkeys walked across it, the first thing we’d think is that they’re eating the blueberries. But they’re also eating grasshoppers and other insects. The damage they cause is being overstated, I think.”

A wildlife success story

It’s hard to know exactly how many wild turkeys are wandering around the state. The biologists’ best guess, derived from hunting data, is that there are anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 of the birds in Maine. And what’s amazing to many is that all those birds have descended from 111 wild turkeys imported from Vermont and Connecticut and released here over the last 40 years.

“It’s a good wildlife story,” Allen said.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, of course, among them Huntress, who fears that hungry, acorn-eating flocks of turkeys may imperil the next generations of Maine’s oak trees. He describes wild turkeys, which are hunted during the spring and the fall, as a “cash crop” and an income producer for the state of Maine.

“They say it’s a big success story, but I think time will tell the difference,” he said.

Historically, wild turkeys existed in significant numbers in York and Cumberland counties, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, and in lower numbers eastward to Hancock County. From the time of colonial settlement until 1880, agricultural practices intensified, especially in southern Maine. The reduction in forest land combined with unrestricted hunting are believed to be the most important factors leading to the native wild turkey population being wiped out in those areas. That happened in the early 1800s.

But as farms were abandoned during the 20th century, farmland reverted to forest, leading state officials to believe that turkeys could survive in their former range again. Attempts to do that began in 1942, but did not succeed until the 1970s. According to the department, snow depth is believed to be the major factor limiting the distribution of turkeys, but Huntress is skeptical.

“Originally, they said they couldn’t live through the cold winters. That’s a fallacy,” the 85-year-old said. “They’re survivalists.”

Striving to co-exist

So why are there so many turkeys this year? According to Allen, 2018 so far is notable for having had good breeding conditions and plenty of food for the turkeys to eat.

“When talking about wildlife populations, I hate to give weather reports,” he said. “But when it’s dry and warm, it’s always better for baby birds, and that’s the experience we had.”

Turkey hens can be good mothers, too, he said, caring attentively for their young. During late summer, fall and winter, hens and their poults join other poults and hens to form flocks that can contain as many as 50 birds.

Adult males, or toms, generally remain loners, according to the department, but can form small groups of as many as five birds. Feeding turkeys can cover several miles in a day, and turkeys eat a lot of things. They like insects, greens, fruits, berries, seeds, grains and nuts, and in the winter dine on bayberry fruits, fern spore heads, burdock seeds and other vegetation around the bare edges of fields. Turkeys also depend on dairy farms to get enough food to survive the winter, eating silage corn and pecking undigested corn from manure.

Allen isn’t sure that the numbers of turkeys can keep going up.

“The concept of carrying capacity is that the landscape can only provide so much food and cover,” he said. “With wild turkeys, we may be approaching that.”

Heather Retberg of Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot said that she has noticed that the turkeys who live in her neighborhood have seemed to find a way to fit in to the farm. They rotationally graze livestock at Quill’s End, meaning that they move their animals to different parts of the farm periodically.

“They kind of work themselves in,” she said of the turkeys. “Laying hens follow the cows and scratch up the cow pies, eating any parasites they find there. They scratch a lot and aerate the soil and, of course, fertilize. In a way, that’s what we see the turkeys doing, too.”

She knows they are lucky. They haven’t always had such a peaceful coexistence with the turkeys, and other farmers haven’t, either.

“For so many of our farming friends, turkeys will go down a row of tomatoes and take one peck from each tomato, ruining everything,” she said. “They can be real nuisances.”

A few years ago, wild turkeys were problematic for the farm, because they were eating expensive organic grain. They spoke to game wardens, who let them hunt some of the birds, fat from eating the grain and apple drops.

“I have to say, it was really, really delicious meat,” Retberg said, adding that in general, she appreciates the birds. “We believe in ‘live and let live.’ And we enjoy looking at them, too.”

According to Allen, the state wants to work with farmers like the Retbergs to keep turkeys in balance with the landscape. He knows the birds like to take dust baths in gardens and fields, knocking over and breaking plants as they try to stay clean. Officials are concerned with people’s issues with wild turkeys, he said. Sometimes they allow farmers to hunt nuisance birds, or will help catch and move turkeys away from a particular area. Still, even though the turkeys seem numerous this year, angry calls about them have not kept pace.

“The phones aren’t ringing off the wall,” he said. “We want to help … Some people don’t like them. A lot of us do. It just puts the onus on us when the numbers are high.”

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