Many of you may be confused by the term thunder chicken, but the fans of the hunting world may have heard Michael Wadell refer to the wild turkey as the thunder chicken. I like to refer to the wild turkey as the king of the spring, strutting around being the vocal leaders of the hardwoods. Their loud vocalizations can be related to the thunder that wakes up the sky during a thunderstorm. That vocalization is known as the gobble, and to a turkey hunter that sound breeds excitement. As Iowa's wild turkey season starts this week, it reminded me about the great recovery that the wild turkey went through to once again have a sustainable population.
The wild turkey is one of the success stories of the United States and Iowa. When settlers landed at Plymouth Rock the turkey populations were in the millions nationwide. These large birds provided the settlers with a great table and market food. Like most of the native species the turkey population was unable to withstand the year round harvesting of both sexes. Also the constant changing of the habitat for agricultural purposes drove the turkey populations to dangerous levels. By 1920's the eastern wild turkey population was estimated to be around 250,000 for the whole United States. Occupying only 12% of their former range, and only 8 states still had a hunting season.
In the early 20th century most states formed conservation agencies which began the reversal of many of the trends that led to the demise of the turkey populations. Providing protection and developing ways to reestablish populations for species that were slipping from existence was the leading focus of the different wildlife agencies throughout the early 20th century.
Not all of their efforts were successful, like in pheasants they attempted to release pen raised birds into the wild, but once again they achieved zero success. The pen raised birds lacked all instincts to survive in the wild. In spite of spending millions of dollars over several decades, no free-ranging populations were produced. It wasn't till the development of the rocket net trap that the agencies had a feasible way to capture wild birds and transplant them to unpopulated areas. Another factor in the recovery of the wild turkey population was the increase in habitat. Limiting grazing on federal and state lands, along with the purchase of more state managed lands aided in success we see today. By the 1980's the population had increased to 1.8 million birds in 47 states, and today the population is estimated at around 7 million birds occupying every state except Alaska.
In Iowa, trapped birds from Missouri, as well as Iowa's Shimek and Stevens State Forests resulted in transplanting wild turkeys to 86 different counties between 1965 and 2001. The funding for this program was through revenues from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, and the excise tax that is placed on the sale of arms and ammunition. The National Wild Turkey Federation also aided Iowa in the restoration efforts. Through these efforts many of us can enjoy either hunting or just witnessing the king of the spring strutting in an open field or a gobbler spitting and drumming just a few yards away on a calm spring morning.