Late January daylight was fading as I snowshoed along, busting open a trail filled in by a recent blizzard. A good woodman notes all signs, so I was quick to notice something on the ridge above leaving a V-shaped trail, and hustled up to investigate. The trail wasn’t like any sign I’d ever cut, and it was clear there were several walkers in a line. Finally, one flopped up onto a blown over hardwood, leaving tracks that changed my woodland world forever.
I often wonder how long that first European stared at the foggy shores of the New World, trying to decide if it was real. Did they rub their eyes, arguing silently that it was trick of the light while peering in disbelief? Like that long-forgotten sailor,
I pondered this simple track troubled by the answer. Until I decided the impossible was true: for here before my frosty brows was a turkey track, bold and clear!
Where and how
Questions are part of understanding and the new birds on the block have people asking just how long has the wild turkey been roaming the woods of western New Brunswick. Accurate answers are sadly scarce and it falls to personal encounters—with a brush of science to lend a hint of legitimacy. Here in Carleton County, wild turkey began as a rumour before the turn of the century, with brief glimpses by surprised folks. Sort of like the Eastern cougar: that famous mystery never troubled by truth. The border Carleton County shares with our cousins in Aroostook County, Maine became a hot bed of encounters as the new century began. Over time, sightings of large birds foraging on crop land and hens with young proved the naysayers wrong. Then, like some modern-day Crusade, the wild turkey crossed the Saint John River into my district.
As to how the wild turkey found the Elysian fields of Old Carlow, that is an equally difficult question. The rumour mill has many theories, one being that pen-reared wild turkey were secretly released by shadowy individuals. Another answer is they are escapees from hunting preserves, on the run looking for somewhere to lie low. Maybe the easiest answer is they simply walked in. Unlike most jurisdictions that spend serious tax dollars on implementing a wild turkey release program, New Brunswick’s birds simply hoofed it over the border, taking up landed status. Apparently border security was slightly lax that day! Maine began restoration work in the 1970s, and supposedly our flocks gradually migrated north. Other folk claim they came down like the coyotes from the townships along the St. Lawrence River. How and where mean little to the turkey, so maybe we ought to emulate that attitude and just accept them.
A turkey primer
Wild turkey had a tough time of it for decades. Originally found across much of the US and portions of Canada, clearing land for agriculture, unrestricted forestry and hungry pioneers nearly put them on the extinct list. Thankfully, sportsman and game officials were able to rescue the turkey, despite its numbers dwindling to fewer than 20,000 by the early 1930s. Hunters invested money, working with government agencies to provide the wild turkey with the corner stones all wildlife needs: good, safe cover, plenty to eat and enough space to raise the young’uns. Give any wild critters from deer to beaver to geese these simple resources, and they’ll do the rest!
Despite standing more than three feet tall and weighing more than 20 pounds, wild turkey can soundlessly melt into the woods. I’ve flushed wild turkey into the air; a feat requiring a single wing beat and a sky-splitting roar that makes his Lordship the grouse sound like a child’s toy. Should a situation call for amphibious tactics, a wild turkey can handle swimming as easy as walking.
Being part of the Galliformes family, turkey are long walkers and like pheasants graze slowly, investigating any interesting possible edibles. They have excellent vision and hearing plus a suspicious disposition, so it’s no wonder the sporting community holds them in such high regard. Feather colours run from various browns to blacks to a whole series of iridescent shades, depending on sex or season.
A male tom turkey has two unique
features: one is a long fleshy extension hanging down over the beak, called
a snood. The other is a called a beard: a tuft of feathers protruding from the breast, measuring as much as nine inches long.
Female hens are dull as dust, blending almost completely with their surroundings, and I’ve almost stepped on the females in heavy brush. The young poults begin as fluffy wet chicks that quickly find their legs and never stop walking. By autumn they can weigh eight to 10 pounds, fully able
to run their own affairs.
Woodland creatures are secretive. leaving little to identify their passage but there are always clues. The wild turkey’s footprint is a large three-toed track spanning three inches, which one individual described as “the mightiest partridge Creation ever made!” Feathers from adults are long, cross striped and unmistakable for any other bird. Dusting areas are a sure sign of resident birds who regularly using the dust bowls. Like most ground birds, turkey fly up into large trees at night and a roosting tree is easy to identify with feathers, droppings and bark scattered underneath from restless roosters. But it’s the vocalizations that perhaps cement the existence of wild turkey in a district.
Whether a returning son or new arrival, the wild turkey is here to stay
Of all the encounters with the wild turkey, none is as spectacular as during springtime, when the toms go a-girling. Any time after mid-March, toms begin to call. Until you hear turkey thunder up close it’s impossible to believe and once several toms begin to verbally spar well, then watch out. All the trash-talking culminates in aggressive displays that can quickly become an outright slug fest. With their blood up and honour at stake, wings become hard fists, puffed chests are battering rams, and watch those feet! No MMA fighter comes equipped with 2-inch, razor-tipped spurs. The matches can be brief or go on until both are winded but still angry. And what of the shy coquettes? They often wander away uninterested, fickle and keeping the boys waiting
Not all giggle and gobbles
Ecosystems develop over countless millennium with every species intricately connected regardless of size. Resources and populations are woven together to ensure all prosper. Wild turkeys are large, hungry birds and unlike grouse or woodcock, they are not native to the Atlantic Provinces. They have some disagreeable habits and sometimes run up against humans. Gardens and flower beds attract foraging turkey that can do real damage. With large thick digging tools on their legs and powerful beaks, a summer’s work can be reduced to compost. Dusting is equally destructive, and I have experienced firsthand the havoc done to freshly seeded veggie plots. Powerful wings dig a deep-dish shape while slinging stones, soil and expensive seeds in all directions. Roosting in fruit trees can destroy autumn’s bounty or, worse still, landing on asphalt roofs can result in expensive repairs. Bird feeders are quickly dumped or destroyed by mobs of eager birds, who often return to repeat the crimes.
Farmers in high turkey saturation areas encounter everything from stock feed consumed to sprouting crops trampled, to actually digging up potato seed. Interactions with humans and pets, while amusing to online viewers, can be very different in person. Hens and toms alike are quick to react to any perceived aggression, so be warned. More troubling still is just what strain on existing wild resources these giants may cause. Increased wildlife demands on ecosystems often have catastrophic results, particularly to Northern snow areas. Answers are slim as to the possible effect turkey will have in Atlantic Canada.
With farm fields, wooded areas and water aplenty it seems the wild turkey have found a northern haven in this part of Atlantic Canada. The sporting community here in NB has enthusiastically embraced the newcomers, with two short, controlled harvests resulting in much interest. There’s no denying wild turkey numbers are growing, and the birds are staking out new territory, with both NS and PEI certainly next. And if wild turkey can traverse ice floes, Newfoundland can expect to see it very soon.