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Are There Too Many Wild Turkeys in Maine?

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Photo by John Milliken

Photo by John Milliken

Photo by John Milliken

John Milliken, VOX Video Editor

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In what has been hailed by many as a great success for wildlife, wild turkeys, which had been completely extinct in Maine since the early 1800’s, were reintroduced in 1977. Their subsequent success has led some to ask if perhaps the turkey population has gotten too high.

When Europeans first came to North America, wild turkeys were widespread throughout what would eventually be the United States, including southern Maine. Due to their habitat being converted to farmland,as well as heavy hunting, however, their numbers shrank until, by the nineteenth-century, they were completely gone. After several failed attempts at reintroducing domestic turkeys, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) successfully reintroduced 41 wild birds from Vermont in 1977-78. Since then, augmented by 70 more birds from Connecticut, the population has grown to an estimated 60,000 to 70,000.

Many Mainers believe that the turkey population has gotten out of hand. They point out that turkeys, which can weigh over twenty-five pounds, are often hit by cars, damaging the vehicles and posing a risk to motorists.

Turkeys can be a nuisance to farmers by stealing their crops and by defecating in livestock feed. They have also been accused of spreading the disease coccidiosis to cattle and of carrying ticks, which can cause lyme disease.

Fred Huntress of the Maine Forest Products Council points out another problem turkeys cause; they can eat all the acorns in a given area. This will lead to a decrease in the populations of other acorn-eating animals, and, because some of these animals, particularly bluejays, help to spread the acorns, there will be fewer oak trees. Lumber from oaks is a major part of Maine’s economy. Turkeys’ feeding habits also create more bare ground where invasive plant species can grow.

There are some who see the return of turkeys as a good thing, although most of them admit that the population probably should not get much bigger than it is. Michelle Smith of the Maine Audubon Society, for example, said: “Wild turkeys are a native species and are filling a natural niche, so Maine Audubon does not believe there is anything wrong naturally with their increasing population”.

Many Mainers enjoy hunting and eating wild turkeys and want them as a game animal; this is especially true in northern Maine where turkeys are less common.

Brad Allen is an MDIFW biologist who believes that turkeys in Maine are a good thing. While acknowledging that they do cause real problems, such as vehicle collisions and eating crops, he also argues that turkeys are less destructive than they are given credit for.

For example, while turkeys can contract a strain of coccidiosis, it is a different strain than the one that afflicts mammals, meaning that they can’t spread it to cattle. While turkeys do sometimes defecate in livestock feed, he says that this, while ruining the food, does not usually spread disease. Nor do they spread large quantities of ticks, which prefer to prey on mammals. In fact, Allen asserts that turkeys sometimes even eat ticks while foraging on the ground!

Finally, Allen says that, because turkeys are highly visible, being active all day rather than just at night like many wild animals, people attribute damage to them that is actually not their fault.

In response to the growing number of turkeys, there are now spring and fall turkey hunting seasons, and permits are available over-the-counter. Brad Allen says in The Bangor Daily News that the turkey population doesn’t seem to be increasing anymore: “[The wild turkey population] is high right now — it’s a very high level. But I don’t see it skyrocketing much more. The trend is remaining at that level.”(https://bangordailynews.com/2012/11/21/outdoors/a-maine-turkey-tale-and-tidbits/)

Sources:

https://www.maineaudubon.org/news/yes-turkeys-roost-trees/

Some Mainers not so wild about turkey population

http://www.sportingjournal.com/main166.shtml

http://www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/wildlife/species-information/birds/wild-turkey.html

Do wild turkeys threaten the future of Maine’s oaks?

A Maine turkey tale and tidbits

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Are There Too Many Wild Turkeys in Maine?