Seen Any Wild Turkeys in the Sewickley Area Lately?
A hundred years ago, the bird had almost vanished from Pennsylvania. Then the Pennsylvania Game Commission took control.
These days, sightings of Meleagris gallopavo are practically everyday occurrences in and around the Sewickley Valley.
But that certainly wouldn't have been the case for our great-grandparents.
The wild turkey at one point almost suffered a fate similar to that of the passenger pigeon, the once-common North American bird that was hunted to extinction by the early 20th century.
Fortunately, turkeys have made a substantial comeback, thanks in no small part to efforts by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Here is a timetable of the wild turkey's history in Pennsylvania, adapted from A Look Back by Joe Kosack, wildlife education specialist for the agency.
- Pre-1683 – The wild turkey's range covers most of Pennsylvania and much of the eastern United States. Along with passenger pigeons, they are a relatively dependable, tasty food source for Native Americans.
- 1683 – William Penn mentions hunting turkey in a letter to the Earl of Sunderland, a reference that signals the bird's decline with the coming of European settlers, who are unrelenting in their forays afield for game.
- Circa 1780 – Benjamin Franklin proposes the turkey as the United States' national symbol, but the bald eagle ultimately assumes the role.
- Early 1800s – John Audubon observes that turkeys are noticeably in trouble: "They are becoming less numerous in every portion of the United States, even in those parts where they were very abundant 30 years ago."
- 1888 – Ornithologist B. H. Warren writes in his book The Birds of Pennsylvania, "This noble game bird, although rapidly becoming extirpated (exterminated), is still found in small numbers in the wooded, thinly populated and uncultivated districts of this Commonwealth."
- 1900 – It is presumed that only a few thousand wild turkeys remain in the state. Not even tracks are easy to find.
- 1913 – Gov. John K. Tener signs legislation closing the statewide turkey hunting season in 1914 and 1915. Another closure follows in 1926.
- 1929 – Game Commissioner Ross Leffler announces the agency will establish the world's first wild turkey propagation farm. The following year, the Pennsylvania Game Commission purchases 938 acres of contiguous farm and forested land in Lack Township, Juniata County.
- 1930s – The game commission begins to target land acquisitions that are beneficial to wild turkeys.
- 1945 – The turkey propagation farm is moved to Lycoming County.
- 1954 – Pennsylvania holds its first statewide wild turkey season in decades.
- Late 1950s – The game commission begins to trap and transfer wild turkeys as a way to accelerate range expansion into areas where they have not yet re-established themselves.
- 1968 – The game commission estimates the state has a minimum fall population of 60,000 turkeys and overwintering flock of 30,000. It occupies about 13,000 of the state's 25,000 square miles.
- 1980 – The success of Pennsylvania's wild turkey trap-and-transfer program spells the end for the agency's turkey farm, which stops propagation in October.
- 1987 – Trap-and-transfer work concludes, paving the way for the self-sustaining wild turkey populations that now occupy most suitable habitat in the state.
- 2000 – The wild turkey population is estimated at more than 400,000 birds, a far cry from the few thousand estimated to be found in the state a century before.