It’s looking like it’s going to be a banner year for wild turkeys in Rhode Island, and while some people aren’t thrilled by that prospect, I can’t help but smile about it.
I’ve been enjoying occasional visits to my backyard this summer by four hen turkeys and their 26 poults, which I’ve watched grow from fluffy, down-covered chicks into half-sized versions of their parents. They appear to strut their stuff proudly, take dust baths in my garden, and peck at whatever seeds the songbirds spill from my feeders. And while I have to be careful walking in the yard in bare feet, I’m not complaining.
Wild turkey conservation is a tremendous success story in Rhode Island. They were hunted out of the Northeast by the late 1700s, and despite efforts to reintroduce them to Rhode Island in the 1950s, they remained mostly absent until the Department of Environmental Management undertook a determined effort to restore them. Twenty-nine birds captured in Vermont in 1980 were released in Exeter in 1980, and in the mid-1990s another 105 birds were released in West Greenwich, Burrillville, Scituate, Tiverton and Little Compton. Five years later, the state was home to about 6,000 turkeys in nearly every community.
According to Brian Tefft, the DEM wildlife biologist who keeps track of turkeys in the state, their population has declined by almost half since their peak in 2001. The reasons are unclear. The state has plenty of available habitat, but also plenty of places where turkeys are few and far between. That makes Tefft wonder whether there may be subtleties in their preferred habitat that are not being met here.
Food doesn’t appear to be a limiting factor in the growth of Rhode Island’s turkey population, though this year’s gypsy moth infestation may mean fewer acorns for turkeys to eat next year. And while natural predation is likely high, Tefft says that hunters take so few that their impact is “biologically insignificant.”
The one factor that’s difficult to assess is weather, and that can have a major effect on the health of the hens and the durability of their chicks. A snowy and icy winter can make it difficult for adult turkeys to access food, which could leave them thin and unfit to reproduce. And lots of rain in early summer could cause hypothermia in the chicks.
That may be the reason why just 2 to 4 chicks survived per hen each year over the last decade or more, compared to 5 or 6 chicks during the peak years in the late 1990s. Last year was a banner year for chick survival, however, and Tefft said this year probably will be, too.
He bases that assessment on his “brood index,” which he calculates at the end of August every year based on reports from the public about the ratio of chicks to hens observed each summer. He typically receives about 350 reports from throughout the state every year, though this year he has received more than 600, which in itself is a sign that turkey numbers are on the upswing.
So if you see any hen turkeys followed by a trail of little ones before the end of the month, report them to Tefft via a form on the DEM website. And enjoy what Tefft calls an important part of Rhode Island’s natural and cultural heritage.
This article first appeared in The Independent on August 18, 2016.