Turkey and Thanksgiving go together like mashed potatoes and gravy.
Today, Maine has lots of wild turkeys. They strut along roads, in woods and fields, through back yards, and scavenge for feed on Maine farms.
Not long ago, however, there were none.
Maine's turkey tale goes like this: Native to the state, by the turn of the century they were hunted to extinction. Efforts to re-introduce them in the 1940s failed. Then, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 41 wild turkeys from Vermont were released in southern Maine in 1977-78. Ten years later, 70 wild turkeys from Connecticut were released.
Now Maine's turkey population is between 50,000 to 60,000, a growth “that's phenomenal,” said MDIFW biologist Kelsey Sullivan.
Talk about surviving, thriving and multiplying.
Maine was the last state to re-establish wild turkeys in New England, "and our population is much greater than the rest of New England," bragged Robb Cotiaux, president of the Maine chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. "It's a success story," said Cotiaux, whose chapter worked on the restoration effort.
At first it was believed turkeys would only survive along the coast, Cotiaux said. "But they bred and took to our lands," thanks to the way Maine forests are managed, with a combination of oak trees that provide acorns, shrubs for young turkeys to hide from predatory owls, and open fields where they find insects to eat.
Maine wild turkeys now live as far north as Aroostook County, and have even moved into New Brunswick, Canada, Cotiaux said.
Wild turkey facts
They're big: North America's largest game bird. Males grow to 20-plus pounds.
They don't like water.
They're not into long-distance flying; they're too heavy. They fly fast, up to 60 mph, in short spurts, but they do more walking than flying. Which is why, biologist Sullivan explained, the meat on their legs is dark (more blood flow from walking) and the meat on their chest is white.
Turkeys spend their nights roosting in trees, 40 to 60 feet up. “They sit there and look at you. That's their safe area,” Sullivan said. In the spring, Cotiaux has seen dozens of male turkeys in trees. "They're up in the tree like storks. All of a sudden, they fly down. They're large, like airplanes. It's something to see. It's a riot."
They're noisy. Their most famous noise is the gobble males make in the spring to attract females. "They also gobble in the fall," Cotiaux said. Males, or “toms,” issue alert calls. Female hens purr and yelp. Yelping is how females communicate, Cotiaux said. Baby turkeys, called poults, make a "kee kee" noise when they run.
Turkeys are social, hanging out in flocks of the same sex, except during mating season. "You watch them in a field, they're a very gregarious bird," Cotiaux said. "They play with each other. It's pretty funny."
They're not fussy eaters, consuming ticks, insects, fruits, nuts and acorns. “If we have a really good acorn year they'll do well,” Sullivan said.
— “They're used to human activity. They'll come right up to people's houses and bird feeders,” Sullivan said. But when the spring turkey hunting season comes around, “hunters can't approach them,” Sullivan said. “They seem to know they're being hunted.” They're not that easy to hunt, and can be difficult to trap.
— To keep turkeys away, some gardeners put out coyote decoys, which are effective at first. “But you have to move it every day,” Sullivan said. If the fake coyotes stay in the same spot, they'll figure it out within a week, he said.
Sullivan's office gets a mix of reaction to turkeys in the wild.
“Some people really love them. Some really hate them,” Sullivan said. “We get a lot of nuisance complaints. If they like your garden, they come back.” Not only do they get into vegetables, “some callers have told us turkeys are sitting on their cars scratching the paint.”
They're also a major pain at dairy farms once turkeys discover corn silos, Sullivan said. Some farms have had to deal with flocks as large as 70 turkeys interested in the feed. “One dairy farm in Knox County would have up to 300 turkeys on any given day.”
Since turkeys have returned to Maine, they've been blamed for some problems they didn't create. One misconception is that turkeys are a major spreader of disease in livestock.
Sullivan recalls a sheep farmer whose sheep were dying. He called worried that turkeys were making his sheep sick. But it wasn't that at all, he said. “It ended up being mold in the feed he was giving them.”
Others — hunters and nature lovers — are thrilled they're here. “Even people who don't hunt them love to see wild turkeys on the landscape,” Sullivan said.
On Monday, Cotiaux was on a hiking trail at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester when he came upon a flock of about 55 turkeys. It was the middle of the afternoon. The turkeys were "out there, bugging" — looking for bugs to eat. It was a sight, he said.
"I have people who travel with me," Cotiaux said. "They're absolutely astounded when they see them."
— Talk turkey:
Jake: a young male turkey
Jenny: a young female turkey
Poult: a baby turkey
Tom or gobbler: adult male
Hen: adult female
— Maine's first spring turkey hunting season was in York County in 1986. Today there is spring hunting in nearly all counties.
— Turkeys mate in April and May. The male turkey has colorful feathers — red, blue, white and brown — that can change with his mood. The female's feathers are darker and mostly brown.
— Wild turkeys have keen eyesight, good hearing and are agile fliers, but usually walk or run from danger.
Source: Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine National Wild Turkey Federation