(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Saturday, April 16, 2005.)
Bob Blizzard’s visitors landed on his North Avenue lawn just before dusk Friday, like they do most days.
A dozen wild turkeys wandered around, gobbling and gabbing, strutting and strolling.
“When they get to mating season, the ol’ gobbler will put his chest out, thrust out his tail feathers, and he’ll strut for the female,” Blizzard said.
Thirty years ago, there wasn’t a wild turkey alive in New Jersey. Today, they’re everywhere.
An estimated 22,000 live scattered throughout the state, with the largest concentrations in the northwest and southwest regions. They thrive in forests, dart through meadows, and pay the more-than-occasional visit to front yards in rural Cumberland and Salem counties. Mating season’s in full swing, and children can start hunting the turkeys today, while adults can start Monday.
The bird’s thriving existence constitutes a great success story among organized reintroductions of species into regions where they were driven out.
“The species had an ecological niche, and they belonged here,” said Bob Eriksen, a biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation. “It was extremely successful beyond our wildest dreams.”
The eastern wild turkey called New Jersey home for as long as history records. They once spanned from the eastern woodlands to the Rocky Mountains, while five other turkey species called other parts of North America home, according to Eriksen.
By the mid-19th century, though, the animal faced eradication in most of the mid-Atlantic and New England states. Humans had chopped down forests to fuel the fires of the Industrial Revolution while simultaneously clearing space for farmland.
Without the forests it called home, the turkey not only lost valuable treetop nesting grounds, but they also became very vulnerable. Many hunters indiscriminately shot the birds for food and sport.
By the early 20th century, the last wild turkey in New Jersey had died.
Over the years, biologists and sportsmen tried reintroducing turkeys into the wild. They typically used domesticated turkeys, descendants of a species that once called central Mexico home. These efforts failed every time, because these turkeys, bred in captivity, couldn’t adapt to the wilds, according to Tony McBride, lead turkey biologist for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. Predators snuffed them out every time.
Turkeys hadn’t died out everywhere, however; they thrived in central Pennsylvania. Like New Jersey, most of Pennsylvania’s forests had been gutted during the Industrial Revolution, but those clear cuts faded into history by the early 20th century. The forests of Central Pennsylvania and the Pocono Mountains to the northeast made prime turkey habitat, and turkeys found it in the 1940s.
Without regard to state lines, turkeys moved north through these burgeoning contiguous forests into western New York. By the late 1950s, so many turkeys lived in New York that state biologists were able to trap and send them to Vermont, where they also thrived. Soon, turkeys were farmed out to several states, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, and, naturally, New Jersey.
Eriksen was New Jersey’s lead turkey biologist in 1977 when the state Division of Fish and Wildlife imported 16 hens from Vermont and seven gobblers, or males, from New York into northwest New Jersey. Biologists released them, minus one that died, at the Delaware Water Gap, near Layton, Sussex County, in the winter of 1977.
That summer, Mother Nature gave them a boost. Infant turkeys are typically born during summer, but they don’t survive well in cool, rainy periods. The summer of 1977, however, was warm and dry, McBride said.
“It helped so much that we were able to trap birds and move them around the Sussex area,” McBride said.
Four years later, biologists moved turkeys to southern New Jersey, and the first hunting season began, with hunters bagging 71 turkeys.
“Turkeys have surpassed the expectations of the biologists in the 1970s,” McBride said. “It was always thought that because turkeys retreated to those core areas of Vermont and New York, that was the only place they could thrive. Turkeys have definitely proved much more adaptable than anyone predicted. They have persisted in suburban areas. They have survived in areas no one thought they could exist.”
The turkey population grew every year in northwest New Jersey, but growth was a bit slower in southern New Jersey. They didn’t take well to the Pinelands, where low forest understories, or small trees low to the ground, replete with green briar, huckleberry and blueberry blocked their vision, McBride said. Turkeys are heavily dependent upon their vision, which is better than a human’s, to avoid predators, and coyotes, red foxes, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls routinely picked them off.
So, in 1995, the Division of Fish and Wildlife decided to trap and move turkeys from northwest New Jersey into southern New Jersey every year for three years. That did the trick, McBride said.
Since then, they’ve been popping up along roads and front yards and finding their way into the local culture.
In Quinton Township, Salem County, Cass McCarthy said turkeys congregated on her front yard this week while her husband was turkey hunting in Virginia.
In Millville, Cumberland County, Walt Kocielski hunts them with his son-in-law on the latter’s 30-acre farm. Hunters annually nab about 11 or 12 percent of the population.
“You pick out a nice spot, get camouflaged, and wait for them to come on in,” said Kocielski. “You have to talk them in with your turkey call.”
That’s a gobble, for those who don’t know. For those who do, turkeys are more than just dinner on Thanksgiving; they’re an animal that gains respect.
“They’re a tremendous adversary,” said Marty McHugh, director of New Jersey’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. “They’re not so easy to get. You have to have the right place, the right camouflage. You have to become part of nature to bag one. You have to go into the woods and blend in and become the hen.”
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NEW JERSEY’S TURKEYS
Source: N.J. Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish & Wildlife