Saturday, March 8, 2014
By Clarke Canfield
The Associated Press
PORTLAND — Once nearly wiped out of existence, turkeys are running wild.
In this 2002 photo, a trio of turkeys takes to the air to avoid an oncoming motorist in Freeport. The state’s wild turkey population has grown to unprecedented levels since restoration efforts began in the 1990s, creating a bounty for bird hunters, but a nuisance for farmers, apple growers and gardeners.
The Associated Press / Robert F. Bukaty
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.
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