Biologist Kelsey Sullivan is the designated wild turkey expert in Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. As such, he’s just wrapping up a three-year project studying the creatures, focusing on sampling them for diseases. We called him up to ask if it’s really OK to hunt them in greater numbers these days, how the native species has rebounded – with a little help from two other New England states – and what he likes about wild turkeys. Other than eating them, that is.

MOTHER HEN: Sullivan’s mother was a big birder as well as an artist, who when he was a child worked for the Massachusetts branch of Audubon, doing illustrations for “field guides and such.” She took her children with her for field research trips, instilling in her son an early interest in birds that resurfaced in college when he took an ornithology class.

YUKON GOLD: Before coming to Maine, Sullivan worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, where they do not have wild turkeys. “I was doing marine water birds there mostly,” Sullivan said. He came to Maine eight years ago as the game bird biologist, working on water fowl, grouse and the like, including wild turkeys.

ON THE REBOUND: While they can be hunted, it’s only for a short season in spring and fall. Wild turkeys were hunted right out of the state in the early 1900s and didn’t reappear in Maine until 1977, when 41 turkeys captured in Vermont (a stronghold for the species, thanks to all those valleys) were released in York County. “Once they were established, our department moved some of those birds to other areas,” Sullivan said. “That went on for about 10 years.” Another 70 were brought in from Connecticut in 1987.

Those original 111 have reproduced to the point that the state population is now estimated to be between 50,000 and 60,000. Not quite rabbits, but solid numbers.

A ONE, AND A TWO: As the population grew, hunters were allowed to take one wild turkey in the spring. In 2002, a fall season was added. By 2010, hunters were allowed two birds in spring, and last year a second bird was added for the fall season as well. A permit costs $20.

TASTY EATING: Yes, Sullivan has hunted turkey himself, although he’s “not a big turkey hunter.” However, he is a fan of eating wild turkey. The meat is “awesome,” he said, whiter and closer in taste to chicken breast than farm-raised or factory-farmed.

ABOUT THOSE DISEASES? Sullivan collaborated with Peter Milligan, associate professor of biology at University of Maine at Augusta, on a study looking at the risk of emerging microbial pathogens in the wild turkey population, particularly in light of climate change. Good news: “We had a really small number of turkeys that showed that they had been exposed to salmonella.”

BAD RAP: Where did the concern over salmonella in the wild turkey population come from anyway? Sullivan says dairy farmers worried because wild turkeys tend to roam in and out of the areas where the cows are fed, and they’re fingered for being the kind of bad barn guests that defecate in silage areas. Then there was a vet who told a sheep farmer who had lost a few lambs to salmonella that if wild turkeys were roaming in the fields with the lambs, they’d be the likely culprit (it turned out to be contaminated feed).

“I feel like we have quelled that somewhat,” Sullivan said. “There is always a chance that wild animals can spread bacteria, but they are not the smoking gun.”

UGLY DUCKLINGS: The study also looked at the avian pox retrovirus (LPDV) in wild turkeys, a cancer-causing virus that will not help wild turkeys win any beauty contests, since it produces lesions on their heads and feet. It can kill them but “more survive than die from it.” Sullivan said there’s no indication the disease causes any harm to the meat, but some hunters worry these ugly birds are not safe to eat. He gets that. “We understand that someone who shoots a turkey with a pussy-looking lesion might not want to eat it. I wouldn’t want to eat it myself.” If they bag the bird and bring it to a tagging station, they’re allowed to go take another in its place.

BY THE NUMBERS: That brutal winter of 2014-2015 didn’t help the wild turkeys, who forage on the ground. “There was definitely mortality,” Sullivan said, although most of that was gauged anecdotally “by people who’d tell us that the flock of 25 turkeys they’d seen in November was down to 19 by March.” The diminished numbers also showed up at the tagging stations where spring hunters went to report their catches (the final numbers for the 2015 season, which will include the fall, aren’t in yet). “Hunters took 5,750 in the spring and that is a little lower than the trend of the last five years.”

EASY PREY: If it’s not the piles of snow taking the turkeys, any number of predators feast on them, from skunks, ravens and owls who make off with their eggs (owls like a poult snack as well). Foxes, bobcats and coyotes pose even bigger hazards.

COYOTE CALLING: Coyotes like turkeys so much that spring hunters have reported that using hen calls to attract the turkeys can have unexpected consequences. They’re sitting there, all camouflaged in the bushes, sounding like turkey hens, when they’re pounced on. “People have had coyotes bite their shoulders.”

ARE TURKEYS DUMB? Since we were at several farms this summer where farmers were kindly trying to hay around turkey nests in open fields, we have to ask, how smart are these birds anyway? Haven’t they ever heard of taking cover? “It might be young, inexperienced hens,” Sullivan said. “But it could be a strategy.” How so? “They don’t know that people hay, obviously, but also, if you are in a wide open swath and there is a cool breeze blowing by, that is spreading your scent over a greater distance. It may help keep predators from keying in on your scent.”

NO LOVE AFFAIR: What does Sullivan like about wild turkeys? “I guess I like that they are pretty hearty, robust and can withstand a lot of climate and weather. I don’t think I have a love affair with turkeys. But I appreciate them.”