Florida's native turkeys have become an unlikely tourist draw

Florida's wild turkeys have been restored to a suitable habitat, becoming a big draw for tourists and hunters

 As families gathered this week over platters of turkey, an elusive variety of the giant bird was gobbling, clucking and flying at surprisingly high speed through south Florida's fields and forests.

The Osceola turkey, also called the Florida wild turkey, is a subspecies unique to the state's peninsula. Smaller and darker than its northern cousins, the Osceola can be found at the southeastern end of Everglades National Park, at the far western edge of Broward County, in the forests of northwestern Palm Beach County and throughout the peninsula up to about Jacksonville.

The state's native turkey has turned into an unlikely tourist draw, attracting hunters seeking to complete their "grand slam" of all five North American turkey subspecies.

"People want to come to get the Osceola," said Roger Shields, wild turkey coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We've had them come from Canada, Alaska, all over."

At the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area in northern Palm Beach County, hunters killed 103 turkeys in the last three seasons.

"They gobble really softly in the hours before dawn," said George Perkins of Lighthouse Point, who teaches turkey hunting seminars and uses a special headset to detect the faint sounds. "You hear them talking back and forth in the trees. They're really difficult to hunt. The main thing is you really have to know the area well. It's almost like being a sniper."

Their speed would surprise anyone who thinks of turkeys as waddling blobs of meat and feathers. A wild turkey can run up to 25 mph and briefly achieve a flying speed of 55 mph, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Although they may be difficult to find, wild turkeys are more numerous today than they have been in decades. By the mid-1930s, unregulated hunting and the loss of habitat to farms and cities had exterminated turkeys in many parts of the United States. Their number fell to as few as 30,000.

But conservation programs were introduced to restore them to their old range. In programs largely financed by hunters through taxes on firearms and ammunition, wild turkeys were trapped and brought to areas where there were none. Strict hunting regulations took effect.

Today, there are an estimated 7 million. In Florida, the number probably tops 150,000, Shields said.

At Everglades National Park, an effort to restore turkeys has brought mixed results. The birds were wiped out of their habitat in the pinelands in the early 20th century by development, logging, farming and hunting. In 2000, 29 turkeys were released in the park's Long Pine Key area, a forested region that's one of the few parts of the park with suitable habitat.

But of 10 turkeys fitted with radio tracking devices, seven died within a year. A second release of 31 turkeys took place in 2006.

Today, it appears they are still there and reproducing.

"There are still some around," said Tylan Dean, biological resources branch chief for Everglades and Dry Tortugas national parks. "We found a turkey nest last year while doing a prescribed burn. We don't have a lot of data. We're not monitoring them. We don't think there are a lot of them, but they are still hanging on."

dfleshler@tribpub.com

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