When you think of turkeys, what comes to mind? For most of us it includes thanksgiving, stuffing, a delicious array of dishes and a perfectly golden turkey from the grocery store. When looking for a turkey we go to Safeway, not the streets and backyards of Castlegar. So where did these wild turkeys come from?
The wild turkey is an example of a successful wildlife conservation story. It originated in the southern states and in the 1800s was found in great numbers. At the time, the wild turkey was seen as an unlimited resource to be harvested at any time, and it was. Harvesting and habitat destruction by Europeans settling North America lead to a crash in wild turkey numbers.
In the early 1900s, the population of turkeys was estimated to be only 30,000. Life wasn’t so good for the turkey.
In an effort to reverse the population trend, wildlife managers established hatcheries and transplanted adults into more suitable habitat. In hatcheries, turkeys were raised like livestock and released into the wild when mature. Unfortunately they took quite easily to domestication and when released from hatcheries behaved like chickens, not well adapted to the wild and as such did not survive long.
Transplanting adults was much more successful. As turkeys were introduced into new territories of replanted forests, they flourished. Current estimates of turkey population size are around 7 million. That’s quite the bounce back!
The turkeys that we see in the West Kootenay region are called Merriam’s wild turkeys which were originally introduced to the northern United States and Canada in the 1960s.
They were transplanted throughout this area in hopes of developing a sustainable hunting population. For many years the turkeys only flourished in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. In time and by capitalizing on man-made travel corridors such as hydro lines, highways, pipelines, wild turkeys eventually moved north into southern B.C.
Merriam’s turkeys are commonly found in Ponderosa Pine and Douglas fir forests, especially those that have a variety of vegetation patches such as meadows, fields and orchards. They enjoy snacking on seeds, flowers, a variety of insects, leafy greens, and a few shrubs such as Kinnikinnick, Dogwood, and Snowberry.
Currently, wild turkeys are flourishing in B.C. Estimates in 2004 put the population at approx. 5000 birds, more than double what was here just five years earlier. This increase has occurred despite more hunters turning to wild turkeys as an alternative to store bought.
These rising numbers pose a variety of potential issues for Castlegar residents and other surrounding communities. Although not yet prevalent here, many towns with heavy turkey populations are experiencing property damage in gardens and lawns, and aggression during the breeding season.
Turkeys, essentially being very large chickens, spend a lot of time scratching the ground looking for food. At five to six times the size of a chicken, a turkey can tear up a garden in no time. Also, like geese, they become aggressive in the spring and summer when defending their mates or chicks.
So the question needs to be asked: Is the appearance of wild turkeys in our backyards an example of success in species conservation or is it an example of species run amuck?
— Katrina Siebert and Kevin Smith are second year Recreation, Fish and Wildlife students at Selkirk College Castlegar Campus.