Reflections in Nature: Game Commission restored turkeys

Last week’s article was about the history of the turkey, and this article is on the great turkey restoration program.

In 1887, B.H. Warren, who was the state ornithologist, wrote this about the wild turkey: “This noble game bird, although rapidly becoming extricated, is still found in small numbers in the wooded, thinly-populated and uncultivated districts of the commonwealth.”

By the 1900s, the birds were absent throughout most of Pennsylvania; however, they hung on in the southcentral part of the state.

Unfortunately, the loss of habitat and the hunting pressure were the causes. There had been no effort to curb hunting pressure and, in 1897, the limit for turkeys was two a day.

When the Game Commission was formed, one of its first law changes was to reduce the turkey limit to one a day, with a season limit of four.

In 1904, the commission shortened the hunting season on turkeys, forbid the use of dogs in the hunting of turkeys and the use of turkey blinds, outlawed purchase of wild turkey meat, and eliminated night hunting for roosting turkeys and using turkey calls. Although these measures helped, the turkey population still was in trouble. So, in 1914, 1915 and 1926, the state was closed to turkey hunting.

The Game Commission began to purchase turkeys from Mexico to be released into the wild. This turkey stocking continued for many years, with many of the birds being released on game refuges.

In 1929, the commission decided it needed to establish a turkey farm for raising its own turkeys. A search began for a good location. Also in 1929, the commission closed certain counties to turkey hunting, and this continued until the 1950s.

In 1930, the commission purchased 938 acres of farm and forested land in Juniata County, for the first turkey farm in the state. Additional purchases at a later date brought the turkey farm size to 1,121 acres. About 500 acres were enclosed with a 9-foot fence to keep ground predators out and turkeys inside.

During the first two years of operation, 3,566 eggs were produced and 720 turkeys were successfully reared for restocking.

In 1936, the commission established wild turkey mating areas to try to improve the wildness of the turkeys raised at the turkey farm. The idea was to have wild gobblers fly in and mate with the penned hens, thus producing a wild bird. There were 21 of these mating areas in the state by 1942.

However, the reality of this was that most of the turkey stockings were a “put and take” program, with the turkey population growing very slowly, but not at all in some areas.

In 1942, World War II had a direct effect on the turkey population, with feed shortages causing a serious reduction on the turkey farm in Juniata County, and the hunting interest of the state’s hunters was redirected to joining military service.

Penn’s Woods were growing into a timber stage, which favored the turkeys, and suddenly turkeys began to spread into new areas. In the late 1950s, the commission began to trap and transfer wild turkeys as a way to speed up the population spread.

During the 1960s, the commission shortened the season in areas where the turkey population still was trying to recover.

By 1968, studies showed that the population of turkeys during the fall was about 60,000 birds, with an over-wintering flock of 30,000. Gobblers made up a third of the population, and since gobblers are polygamous – they gather harems of hens – there was a definite excess of gobblers, possibly two or three times more than needed. The results of the study were that the commission had its first spring gobbler hunt on May 6-11.

However, there still were places within the state that did not have a good population of turkeys, even though game farm turkeys were being stocked in those areas. To resolve the problem, the commission began in earnest a Wild Trap and Transfer Program. From 1960 to 1970, about 650 turkeys were trapped in the northcentral counties and released elsewhere. By 1980, the turkey trapping program had been so successful that the turkey farm switched from raising turkeys to ring-necked pheasants.

The sequence of the early laws protecting the turkeys – raising turkeys on a farm; the wild mating areas and finally, the Trap and Transfer Program – is one of the great success stories in wildlife conservation. I doubt if the commission would have been so successful had it not been for each step along the way.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences, the latest being ”Every Day Was Game Day.” Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.