Rhode Island’s Wild Turkeys are Making a Comeback

Fowl play is not off the table.
fowl play
Illustration by John Rego.

Koren Caswell is a kind woman with a Snow White approach to the fauna of downtown Wakefield. The hummingbirds get sugar water, the squirrels freely raid the birdfeeders, bunnies are welcome. She puts out raisins for the crows. So, it was no surprise when the wild turkeys came calling. For the last eighteen months, small flocks have periodically made themselves at home in her yard, stopping by to graze the corona of seeds on the ground around the feeder, nestling comfortably in the shade of the house, leaping up to grab blueberries from the bushes in the back. 

“I like watching them. We don’t see birds that big around here; they are interesting.” Of the across-the-street neighbor who grumbled about turkeys ripping up his lawn, she says, “They are aerating the lawn, and digging up grubs and things you don’t want.” 

More than thirty-five years after the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) reintroduced wild turkeys to Rhode Island, the population has flourished and their range extended to the point of conversation — even strong opinion. On the one hand, says Josh Beuth, a principal wildlife biologist with DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, “wild turkeys are a conservation success story.” On the other: “The nuisance calls are pretty much constant,” he says. “Especially in the spring, at the peak of the mating season.”

Before the advent of wildlife management, the fortunes of the eastern wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo silvestris, had diminished with the size of their habitat and man’s taste for their meat. A New England native, the species were plentiful in seventeenth century when the first colonists arrived. But their forest habitat was riven by agriculture, and then residential development. By the nineteenth century, Rhode Island hunters finished them off. 

In the 1980s, state wildlife officials began to re-introduce wild turkeys. The first flock of twenty-nine birds imported from Connecticut established themselves in Exeter, but they were not enough to jumpstart a statewide revival. About a decade later, the DEM resumed seeding different parts of the state with wild turkey flocks.

From 1994 to 1996, officials periodically released about 200 birds trapped in other states to Tiverton, Little Compton, Burrillville, Scituate, South Kingstown and Foster.

One of their hosts was Foster farmer Charles Borders, says Jed Dixon, president of Borders Farm Preservation, a 212-acre reserve and turn-of-the-century farm museum.

 “Borders Farm was on a road that was not well-travelled, and Charles hadn’t allowed hunting. It was a safe place, perfect — and Charles loved getting something for free,” says Dixon. “He was really proud of being part of re-introducing wild turkeys to the state.”

Today, Beuth estimates the Rhode Island wild turkey population hovers between 4,000 and 5,000 birds, with flocks in every city and town, with the exception of Block Island and Jamestown. With the state’s forests at maturity, conditions are favorable for wild turkeys’ continued robust presence; A large quantity of oak and beech trees produce enough nuts and seeds to allow the turkeys to build their fat reserves to survive the winter.

Nationwide, the population has rebounded from about 200,000 in the early nineteenth century to more than six million in forty-nine states, says Mark Hatfield, a certified wildlife biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation. The advent of the cannon net made it easier to relocate wild flocks to areas where the bird had been extirpated. Over a thirty-year period, state and federal wildlife agencies and conservationists moved some 200,000 wild turkeys, significantly boosting their spread.

Turkeys also possess two other qualities that favor their survival: eternal vigilance and adaptability. Rhode Island has two wild turkey hunting seasons — a twenty-four-day period from late April to late May, and a two-week archery season in October. The limit has been one bird per season. This year, the DEM determined that the population was big enough to support a two-bird limit. But likely as not, few hunters will even bag one turkey. Annually, the DEM issues between 1,200 and 1,400 permits. Last year, hunters reported 190 kills to the DEM. 

(The DEM has just invested in an autonomatronic turkey to flush out violators who like to shoot at turkeys from their vehicles. “It’s not an everyday occurrence,” says DEM environmental police officer Mike Schipritt. “This year the DEM was given a grant from International Wildlife Crimestoppers to purchase a robotic turkey to set out in fields. I’m wondering what will happen if someone hits this thing with a twelve-gauge shotgun, but we’ll see.”