MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Once almost removed from their native territory, the restocking of the wild turkey to its former and new ranges has been an American conservation success story.
Wild turkeys are far removed from their barnyard kin. Their keen eyesight and hearing make them challenging quarry for hunters. And their meat makes fine table fare. In the early days of the republic, the wild turkey was even nominated to be used as the national symbol by none other than Benjamin Franklin.
Across the country, turkeys have made a remarkable comeback. About 40 years ago, there was an estimated 1.3 million birds, with the number now at about 7 million, said James Earl Kennamer, chief conservation officer for the National Wild Turkey Federation. Turkeys now have established flocks in 49 states. Alaska has no turkeys.
"In the early 1900s, we had turkeys in the Tensaw River Delta in south Alabama, the Santee River area in South Carolina and the Roanoke River Basin in North Carolina," he said. "The restocking and stocking efforts have been very successful. We used to think turkeys needed vast swaths of unbroken woodlands to survive.
"That was because those were the only places where turkeys were. Well, they proved us wrong. Turkeys are very adaptable as far as habitat, and they can thrive in areas where people live."
Turkey hunting produces a $10 billion per year economic impact in the country, he said.
Alabama and Texas lead the nation with an estimated 500,000 turkeys in each state, Kennamer said.
Alabama has a success story of its own to tell. In the early 1900s, it was estimated the state had fewer than 10,000 birds, said Steve Barnett, director of the Alabama Department of Conservation's Project Wild Turkey. The current flock has its base in a restocking program that trapped and relocated 1,900 birds from 1943 until 2006. The birds were trapped in state and then released in 46 of the state's 67 counties. The remaining 21 counties had turkeys, he said.
"Turkeys have established themselves as fixtures in Alabama," Barnett said. "The restocking has been so successful because we have regulated hunting seasons and bag limits. The turkeys have done the rest."
Even so, there may be trouble in turkey paradise. Alabama will conduct a survey of the flock next year, and Barnett won't be surprised if the estimates come in at under a half-million birds.
Cooler and wetter than normal springs over the past couple of years have meant hard times for reproduction. Turkeys breed in the spring.
"All we have so far is anecdotal evidence, but there is a perceived and real decline of turkey numbers in the Southeast," Barnett said. "A lot of it is because of weather conditions during the past several springs. But there are also habitat issues at play.
"Turkeys need open areas to nest and brood. In a lot of our forested areas, the understory has thickened up to a point where it really doesn't support optimal turkey habitat."
But not everyone is wild about wild turkeys. Some folks in Maine are crying foul over the fowl.
Native to the Pine Tree State, turkeys disappeared from Maine in about 1820, said Brad Allen, a wildlife biologist and the bird group leader with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. In 1977, a restocking program brought 41 turkeys in from Vermont, and now the flock in Maine is estimated at more than 60,000.
The department has fielded complaints from farmers and home owners saying the turkeys are destroying crops and causing damage to expensive landscaping, Allen said.
"One man's pleasure is somebody else's pain," he said. "Turkey's are relatively new to Maine, and they are moving into new habitats close to where people live. We get calls of turkeys roosting on cars and leaving droppings all over yards."
The number of birds means the state has lengthened fall turkey hunting season, which runs from Oct. 3 through Nov. 1, and hunters are now allowed to take two birds during the season, One was the former limit.
Turkeys aren't at fault in most of the complaints coming into the department, Allen said.
"Turkeys are large birds, and they are active during the day," he said. "Most of the crop damage reports we have received have been proven to be the result raccoons, foxes and other animals that usually are active at night. But if a blueberry farmer sees 16 turkeys stand up in a blueberry patch and one has a blueberry in her beak -- oops."
Farmers in Maine don't like the birds because of the crop damage they cause, said Jeff Timberlake, an apple producer in Turner. Timberlake is also a Republican member of the House of Representatives, serving on the Agriculture and Conservation and Forestry committees.
"A flock of 20 turkeys can go down a row in the orchard and peck an apple here or an apple there, and destroy $10,000 in apples in an hour," Timberlake said. "The state's solution is to trap the nuisance birds on my property, then release them on the coast, dumping them on the blueberry barons."
He has a permit to shoot birds damaging his orchards.
"I can't shoot them with a shotgun," he said. "I let loose a blast down a row with a shotgun, and I destroy more apples than a turkey will get. So that leaves using a rifle, and you can't control them with a gun like that. We don't have enough hunters going after turkeys to control their population."
A suggestion on how to handle the problem is offered from far below the Mason-Dixon Line.
"Shoot, if those folks up in Maine don't like turkeys, they can pay my way to go up there and hunt them," said Albert Ross, a Montgomery resident and self-described turkey hunting "addict."
"Turkeys aren't a nuisance," Ross said. "If you see them in the wild, it's something you will never forget."
By MARTY RONEY