PORTLAND — Once nearly wiped out of existence, turkeys are running wild.
Buoyed by what’s been called the most successful wildlife restoration project ever, wild turkeys are eating crops, ruining gardens, crashing into cars and motorcycles and even smashing through suburban windows.
Nonexistent in Maine 26 years ago, the turkey population has increased to an estimated 60,000 birds. The growth in Maine mirrors what’s been happening across North America, with the numbers climbing from about 1 million to 7 million birds in the past 30 years.
The unprecedented spike prompted Maine lawmakers to enact a longer fall turkey hunting season, which began Thursday, and to allow hunters to bag two birds rather than one.
The birds have flourished since 41 of them were brought over from Vermont and released in Maine in 1977, said Brad Allen, a biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Many people, though, think it’s led to too much of a good thing, he said.
Turkeys have been fingered for eating dairy farm silage, vegetable crops, blueberries and apple blossoms. Homeowners have bellyached about them getting into gardens and bird feeders. And they’ve been known to fly into moving vehicles – once knocking a rider off his motorcycle and another time crashing through a truck windshield in Maine.
Turkeys smashed through windows of homes in Massachusetts and New Jersey this year, and a mail man reported being attacked by a pair of them outside Boston. A tour bus driver was hurt by flying glass when a turkey crashed into the windshield while driving in Pennsylvania, and a Georgia sheriff’s deputy armed with a broom and a gun opened fire on a wild turkey after it attacked him.
Many people have legitimate gripes, but some complaints are overstated, Allen said. The department’s primary charge has been to restore the birds, and in many places the populations have exceeded expectations, he said.
“I don’t think they’re overabundant. I love wild turkeys and I like what I’m seeing,” he said. “But some people perceive it to be way too many.”
Benjamin Franklin once suggested that wild turkey be America’s national bird because it’s a native of North America and, he wrote, “a bird of courage.”
But subsistence hunting and habitat loss nearly wiped them out in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their population fell to an estimated 30,000 to 150,000, and those birds primarily lived in remote areas where people couldn’t get to them, said James Earl Kennamer, chief conservation officer for National Wild Turkey Federation, a South Carolina-based conservation nonprofit.
The turkey is the most successful wildlife restoration project ever, he said. Every state except Alaska, where there are no turkeys, now has turkey hunting seasons.
Alabama and Texas each have about 500,000 of the birds, Kennamer said. There are 450,000 of them in Missouri, 370,000 in Kansas and 345,000 in Pennsylvania.
Because they’re abundant, turkeys make for good hunting and good eating, said George Smith, a lifelong hunter from Mount Vernon who was planning to hunt on opening day with his 90-year-old father. Maine has become one of the best turkey-hunting spots in the country, he said, and the bird’s range has also expanded as the numbers have swelled.
“Originally we thought they’d only survive along the coast,” said Smith, a former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. But now he sees them in the woods of northern Maine. “They’re all over the place,” he said.
Craig Hickman, who has an organic farm in Winthrop, said turkeys have eaten his blueberries and collard greens, and trampled cabbage heads. Hickman, who’s also a state representative, introduced a bill this year that would have allowed people to kill as many turkeys as they wanted.
When Hickman moved to Winthrop in 2002, the typical turkey flock had five birds. Nowadays he sees flocks as big as 45 birds, and he sees them more often. The rising turkey population, he added, has also resulted in a growing tick population.
“They seem to have gone crazy,” he said. “The wild turkeys are running wild.”
Kennamer said it’s true that turkeys can be a nuisance, but that studies show that deer, raccoons and other animals cause more damage. The turkey is more visible, however, because it’s active during the day while those other animals come out at night, he said.
Smith is hoping that more people take up turkey hunting because of the longer hunting season. Turkey hunting’s enjoyable because hunters see and hear a lot of the birds, unlike deer hunting where a hunter might go an entire day without seeing one.
“I’m a lifelong deer hunter and I’ve come to like turkey hunting just as much,” he said.