They're Back: Wild Turkeys Return to NH

Not so long ago there were no wild turkeys in nh - now there are thousands.

Most of them were gone by the end of the Revolutionary War. The last report of one was in Weare in 1854. Then there were none.

Why did they disappear? Ted Walski, a turkey biologist for the NH Fish & Game Department, says it was mostly the explosion of settlements in the early 1700s that reduced the habitat for turkeys.

The turkeys not wiped out by habitat loss were hunted by the early settlers. "They were a big food item for the colonists," Walski says. And he adds, with no state wildlife management at the time, the amount that could be taken was unregulated. The turkey – the Eastern Wild Turkey its official name – disappeared from all of New England.

Today, though, there are more than 40,000 wild turkeys in New Hampshire – some in every town.

The effort to bring back the turkeys started in the 1960s but it really began to work in 1975, in large part thanks to Walski. That year he, with the help of his colleagues at Fish & Game, introduced 25 turkeys taken from New York and Pennsylvania into the Connecticut River Valley. Walski says, "That's where we had the most dairy farms, which have good brood habitats – open land with enough food available, like corn waste and manure, to make it through the winter."

Once those turkeys multiplied (females lay up to 12 eggs with about a third surviving predators), Walski trapped some and moved them to other parts of the state. "Now we have turkeys all the way from New Castle to Pittsburg," he says. "There are 40,000 in the 10 counties. I never thought we'd even get to 10,000."

One major factor in the success – the proliferation of bird feeders. The seeds, especially sunflower seeds, get the turkeys through the winter when the snow is too deep to feed off the ground. They have a five-or six-square-mile range, covering hundreds of acres every day.

A turkey hunting season began in 1985, the numbers by then sufficient. It's by permit only, and with shotguns only.

Despite the role he played in bringing back the birds, he's OK with the hunting: "We'd be knee deep in them if there weren't hunting." Besides, he says, "they're pretty tasty, though a little tougher."

Walski, who's now the southwest NH regional biologist based in Keene, says he's proud of the work he did to restore the turkey: "It feels good. Some of us want to contribute to society, to feel like you've paid something back to help wildlife resources."

See a flock of turkeys?

You can take part in Fish & Game's annual winter wild turkey flock survey. If you see a flock between January and mid-March, report your observations online. A link will appear on the Fish & Game website when the survey is open. The reporting helps biologists assess the impact of winter weather on the turkey population.

Last year there were 1,180 flock reports, totaling 20,295 turkeys. Fish & Game officials say the numbers were down from the year before, primarily because it was such a mild winter. They say the lack of snow cover coupled with good fall production of acorns, beechnuts, apples, white ash seeds and other seeds and fruits meant the turkeys stayed in the woods rather than search out bird feeders where they're more visible. Check out the list of "Top Turkey Towns" on the website. In 2012, southeastern NH had the most turkeys, with Bedford topping the list with almost 3,000.