Monday, May 24, 2021

Turkey survey yields noisy gobblers

        Last month I got up extra early twice a week in order to be in place on a dark backroad 40 minutes before sunrise to listen for the distinctive gobble of wild turkeys. On my assigned days, I drove a 12-mile route and stopped every mile for four minutes of straining my ears for any indication that turkeys were out and about. And more often than not, they were.
        If you haven’t heard the bizarre sound of a wild turkey gobbling, remind yourself to spend some time around dawn on clear April mornings wherever forests meet meadows. There’s a good chance you’ll see a tom turkey — or three — showing off by raising and spreading his tail, puffing up his feathers, and turning his head a patriotic red, white and blue. And then, when he senses that the timing is right, he lets loose with a garbled blast that only another turkey would be attracted to. To me, it
Wild turkey (Todd McLeish)

sounds more like an irate mother scolding a disrespectful child than a turkey trying to convince another turkey to mate. But it seems to work for them.
        I drove that route as a volunteer for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to help them get a picture of the abundance of turkeys in the state, where they are most common, and how successful the mating season is likely to be. It’s one of several strategies DEM biologists use to estimate the population of turkeys in the area and assess whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing. Other data comes from the number of turkeys harvested by hunters each year and late summer reports from area residents of how many baby turkeys they see traveling with their mothers.
        I first became enamored of wild turkeys about 35 years ago after moving back to the Ocean State from upstate New York, where turkeys were commonly seen on roadsides and in farm fields. The birds had not been seen in Rhode Island in more than 200 years, but I imagined it would be exciting to see a flock of turkeys wander through my yard someday.
        When it finally happened, I couldn’t have been more excited — until they wouldn’t go away. They discovered all the spilled birdseed beneath my feeders and decided that my yard provided a reliable food supply. Soon I couldn’t walk around my neighborhood without stepping in you-know-what, and every passing school bus driver stopped at my house to let the children watch the turkeys before continuing down the road. By then, my daily flock of visitors had reached 55 birds.
        Eventually I stopped feeding the songbirds for a while to get the turkeys to wander somewhere else, and ever since then, smaller numbers of turkeys have only been occasional visitors. This spring I’ve had a half-dozen stop by every few days, which is a number I can tolerate.
        Rhode Island’s turkey population is quite healthy after efforts to reintroduce them to the state in the 1980s and 90s led to an abundance of gobblers by the early 2000s. Their numbers have declined slightly and leveled off since then, and they remain relatively easy to see in suburbia, along roadsides, and sometimes even in urban areas.
        Up close they can be a bit frightening, with their dinosaur-like head, curious nature and little fear of humans. And they’ve been known to chase cars during the exuberance of the breeding season. If that happens to you, stare them down and gobble right back. They’ll get the hint.

        This article first appeared in the Independent on May 22, 2021.

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