It’s difficult to drive very far in Rhode Island without eventually stumbling upon a flock of wild turkeys. They’re seemingly everywhere – and strangely enough, they appear especially visible during the Thanksgiving season.
In my wooded neighborhood, a flock of a dozen turkeys regularly makes the rounds of the homes with overflowing birdfeeders and weedy gardens. And they’re not shy. They parade down my driveway in single file, strutting and squawking and making a fuss, then battle over whatever morsels the songbirds have spilled from my feeders. If I open the window, they barely acknowledge me – unless I announce myself with a high-pitched gobble. To which they respond in kind, as if we’re playing a raucous game of call and response.
This year, for the first time, four turkey mommas brought their 27 babies – officially called poults – to my yard every few days all summer long. And now they’re all grown up. Or at least most of them.
The turkey babies that visited my yard survived at a much greater rate than was the case with most turkey broods in Rhode Island this year. According to Brian Tefft, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management biologist who keeps track of the state’s turkey population, the average number of turkey poults to survive until fall this year was just 2.7 per hen, which is below the 10-year average of 3.2 and just half of last year’s rate.
Nonetheless, Rhode Island’s wild turkey population is a conservation success story. The birds were eradicated from the region by hunters in the 1700s, and it was nearly 200 years before they returned, thanks to reintroduction efforts by DEM. State biologists captured 29 turkeys in Vermont in 1980 and released them in Exeter. Another 105 birds were released in the 1990s in Tiverton, Little Compton, Burrillville, West Greenwich and Scituate. By 2001, about 6,000 turkeys were roaming nearly every community in the state.
The birds even made it to Aquidneck Island, where Tefft said self-sustaining flocks are often seen in Portsmouth and Middletown, especially near the airport and Norman Bird Sanctuary. “Whether they walked over the bridge or flew over, we don’t know,” he said, noting that a Middletown flock became a short-term nuisance a decade ago when they exhibited a variety of anti-social behaviors, including attacking children getting of a school bus.
Mark Pagliarini, education coordinator at Norman Bird Sanctuary, said a flock of 7 or 8 turkeys visits the sanctuary regularly, and he often sees other flocks in the neighborhoods near Easton’s Pond and Albro Woods. He said the abundant farmland and golf courses on Aquidneck Island means there is plenty of suitable habitat for wild turkeys to thrive on the island.
“We don’t have an over-abundance of them, so you aren’t guaranteed to see them every time you go looking for them, but they’re still here in good numbers,” he said. “And they’re a good source of food for our coyotes.”
According to Tefft, the wild turkey population in Rhode Island has declined to about 3,500 birds in recent years for unknown reasons. Almost every state from Maine to Virginia has experienced similar declines. He said the number of poults that survive to adulthood has been below average most years in the last decade.
“For our population to really grow to their former numbers, we need multiple years of above average production,” he said.
Spring and early summer weather is an important factor in poult production. When the chicks hatch in May and June, they are especially susceptible to hypothermia if they get wet from a heavy rain storm. They are also unable to fly into the trees to roost at night until they are about 3 weeks old, so they are vulnerable to predators on the ground.
“We’re also looking at food sources – if acorn production is poor or there’s a hard winter, then the hens might not be so fit to raise a family in spring,” Tefft said.
Hunting appears to be a non-factor in the sustainability of Rhode Island’s turkey population. Just 100 to 125 turkeys – males only – are harvested by hunters each year. Tefft calls those numbers “biologically insignificant.”
Mortality in winter doesn’t appear to be much of a factor, either. University of Rhode Island ornithologist Scott McWilliams said that one research study found that wild turkeys can survive in temperatures as low as -50 degrees. Another study of winter survival indicated they can live 2 to 3 weeks without eating if snow and ice make food inaccessible.
Whatever it is that is keeping turkey numbers from booming like they did in the 1990s isn’t likely to result in serious declines, especially as the climate warms and our winter weather places less stress on the birds.
“We probably didn’t grow the turkey population this year,” concluded Tefft. “But it probably at least remained stable.”
This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on Nov. 23, 2016.