Bright and early Saturday morning, hundreds of junior hunters will hop out of bed, head into the woods with an adult mentor and spend a few hours hunting turkeys on Youth Turkey Day.
Many will emerge with turkeys to tag at the local general store and tales to tell their friends when they return to school Monday. Monday’s also the day when we adult hunters will kick off the regular turkey season.
Turkey hunting in Maine can be a lot of fun, as hunters “talk” with birds and try to convince them to strut within shotgun or arrow range.
But not everybody is so enthusiastic about the state’s success in reintroducing wild turkeys, which began back in the 1970s in York County. In fact, plenty of Mainers think we have far too many turkeys on the landscape and blame the birds for a variety of ills.
Today, with turkey season looming, let’s celebrate those birds and debunk a few of those myths.
Let’s start with this: In some parts of the state, there are a lot of turkeys. And though the state deals with few calls about nuisance turkeys, according to biologist Brad Allen, there are places where efforts to limit the number of birds might make sense.
With that said, there’s no getting around this: These big birds get a bum rap and are blamed for a variety of problems.
And Allen, who serves as the bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, says the fact the birds are so visible probably doesn’t help their reputations much.
“If you’re seeing a flock of turkeys in a blueberry field at noontime, [you might blame the birds for eating all the berries],” Allen said. “[But] there are deer, bear, moose, foxes and everything else in that blueberry field at night, doing damage.”
Most people focus on what they see during the light of day and don’t consider other options.
“Turkeys are the fall guys for everything having to do with wildlife damage,” Allen said. “Turkeys are their own worst enemies because they group up in large numbers, and they’re out in the middle of a field. You don’t see deer and foxes running across the field. You see turkeys.”
Allen isn’t saying turkeys can’t cause problems, mind you. He’s just saying that they’re likely blamed for problems that they don’t cause, in addition to the problems they do.
And this time of year, turkeys are often the topic of conversation. Just yesterday, in fact, a co-worker walked up to my desk and asked a question I’ve heard dozens of times: “Do we have too many turkeys?”
Again, I cited Allen, who spoke for many of us hunters when I interviewed him the other day.
“It baffles my mind that a hunter would say that there’s too much game out there, though we do hear that,” Allen said.
Which just goes to prove that one man’s “too many” can be another’s “not enough.” It all depends on whether the birds are fouling your silage and eating your crops, or foiling your attempts to hunt them.
Another thing wild turkeys are blamed for — outcompeting and driving out ruffed grouse — is a total myth, according to Allen.
Despite his assertion, plenty of people do feel that the successful reintroduction of turkeys has been costly for grouse.
Here’s why Allen says that’s not true.
“Turkeys like an older forest, and grouse like a young forest,” Allen said. “If you and I live in an area that hasn’t seen a chainsaw go across it in 40 years, then that’s land that’s not going to hold grouse into the future in high numbers, but turkeys are going to love it.”
Allen said that people may look at a particular piece of land that used to hold grouse 20 years ago, notice that turkeys are much more common nowadays, and not connect the dots. As a forest ages, it’s more apt to hold turkeys than grouse.
And there’s more.
“In order for two species to be competing for a food item, they have to have very similar diets,” Allen said. “In order to have that kind of competition, they’ve got to compete for something limited, and it’s got to be to the detriment of one and the benefit of another. We can’t see that. We don’t see that.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke