Wild turkeys are subject to viruses that can cause warts, especially on the neck and around the eyes. While not fatal and not harmful to humans, they can be an issue for the birds. Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

There seemed no discernible difference from a distance. The gobbler I’d been calling responded in typical turkey fashion, if there is such a thing, and slowly made its way closer, finally entering the effective range of my trusty 20 gauge. It was not until I walked up on the fallen fowl that I noticed something peculiar.

The fleshy, featherless head that would typically be a pattern of pink, red and blue flesh was mottled with yellow-green scaly flakes. It would not be the last such bird I’d encounter, and the next was far worse, with wart-like growths covering much of its head. One is an aberration but two is a trend, and a potentially worrisome one. Clearly more research was in order.

Through subsequent communication with biologists from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the National Wild Turkey Federation I found the answers I sought. This all occurred a decade ago, but given our recent experience with virulent entities, and the possibility that others may encounter similarly afflicted birds, I thought this a good time to share what I learned.

For roughly the last decade, wildlife agency personnel have been monitoring populations for the presence of two viruses that affect wild turkeys: Avian pox virus (APV) and Lymphoproliferative Disease virus (LPDV). APV has been around for decades and can infect several species. LPDV is still relatively new. Symptoms exhibited by infected birds are similar for both, consisting of lesions or wart-like, pussy protuberances around the neck and head. Neither disease is directly fatal, but growths can accumulate around the eyes or in the throat, putting birds in a more vulnerable and weakened state, where they become easy prey.

According to the Northeast Wildlife Disease Cooperative, about 230 species of birds are susceptible to APV. Infections in wild birds are often mild and self-limiting. The lesions heal and the birds recover, unless as previously noted, they succumb to predation or other sources of mortality as a result of their compromised condition. Of particular concern is that the virus can be spread between wild and captive birds, drastically increasing transmission rates among confined populations.

According to the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine Animal Health Diagnostic Center, LPDV seems to be confined to gallinaceous birds like turkeys and chickens, though natural infections have only been observed in turkeys. Examination of samples taken from harvested wild turkeys found the rate of infection (carrying the virus) among adult birds was 71 percent in New Hampshire and over 60 percent in New York. While a high rate tested positive, few showed physical signs of infection.

Should we be concerned? Probably not. According to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, “There are no known human health implications associated with LPDV and avian pox viruses. The viruses are not harmful or transferable to humans.” There also doesn’t appear to be much reason to be concerned about the turkeys. Even where high infection rates occur, mortality seems to be modest. Increased transmission rates among greater densities is nature’s way of controlling populations, but we really don’t have enough turkeys anywhere yet to worry about that. And yes, the birds are safe to eat. Just the same, should you encounter a wild turkey this spring that shows signs of infection, you are advised to contact MDIFW.

Anyone who observes a sick turkey in New Hampshire at any time of year is encouraged to report it to one of the Fish and Game’s Regional Offices, located in Keene, Durham, New Hampton and Lancaster.

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