Startled by an approaching truck, two wild turkeys, the flying boxcars of the bird world, flapped noisily out of a tree near the unpaved mountain road.
The wild fowl, smaller and more slender than domestic turkeys, flew awkwardly into a stand of oaks across the road and disappeared in the Appalachian foliage.
Millions of Americans will sit down to Thanksgiving dinners featuring turkeys raised on farms; comparatively few will dine on the wild, tree-roosting variety.
The wild turkey’s wariness makes it extremely difficult to hunt, but the challenge of shooting a big tom for the holiday table brings out thousands more hunters each year.
About 1 million Americans now hunt turkeys, 70 times more than five years ago, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield, S. C.
About 50 years ago, the American wild turkey was nearly extinct, a victim of expanding farms and a disease contracted from domestic birds. Now every state except Alaska (it’s too cold) has a breeding population, and every state except Alaska and Hawaii has a hunting season, usually during the spring mating time. Some states have two, even three such seasons a year.
This is a result of game management programs that involve, among other things, relocating breeding-age turkeys and clearing pockets in forests to give new flocks the grassy habitats they require. Some game managers even provide water and plant shrubs to provide the cover turkeys like.
With such solicitous treatment, the turkey population in the United States has skyrocketed to more than 4 million, more than when European settlers arrived, according to the federation.
Establishing just one bird in a new area costs about $500, the federation estimates, but states have found that the investment pays off. Once a breeding population is established, the flock can double in size within two years.
“It’s been a phenomenal success story,” said James Earl Kennamer, research director for the federation’s extensive restoration effort. “All across this country we’ve created acres and acres of ideal turkey habitat--better than any that ever occurred naturally.”
By the year 2000, the federation hopes to stock turkeys on every suitable acre across the country. This will require 20,000 relocations and cost at least $10 million, the organization estimates.
“It’s a lot of money, but we’ll all help raise it,” said Dempsey White, a cotton and soybean farmer from Natchez, Miss., who is U.S. champion turkey caller. “Turkey hunters are a compulsive lot.”
Like most other states, West Virginia has discovered that there is money to be made on wild turkeys. The mountainous, economically distressed state cultivates turkeys in remote areas.
“We see them all the time now,” Howard H. Lewis, owner of a hunting store in Wardensville, W. Va., said. “But turkeys won’t let you sneak up on them. They see and hear everything.”
To cash in on the rising interest, Lewis now stocks supplies for turkey hunters, including callers and practice targets with the bull’s-eye on the turkey’s neck. “Turkey-related sales now make up 10% of my revenue,” he says.
A little well-placed publicity can attract turkey hunters, who spend an average of $114 to $705 a year on their pleasure, the federation estimates. In West Virginia, turkey hunters spend about $6 million during the spring, fall and winter hunting seasons.
The bigger and more plentiful the birds, the busier the cash register. Pennsylvania, with rapidly growing turkey flocks, takes in about $40 million annually.
Illinois found that its typical turkey hunter is a 40-year-old man who lives in a small town or rural area and earns about $30,000 a year.
West Virginia’s turkeys are some of the biggest known, after 15 years of intensive management. Last season at Lewis’ store, hunters registered at least half a dozen gobblers that weighed more than 25 pounds. The average adult wild turkey weighs 12 to 18 pounds.