The Sportsman’s World: America’s Bird

By Leon Archer

When I was 16, no one in New York state that I knew talked about hunting wild turkeys unless they were referring to the Pilgrims and Indians.

Wild turkeys no longer gobbled in the forests of our state, and had not done so for a long time before I was born. Early New Yorkers had killed them all off by the mid-1800s.

If anyone had told me when I was in high school that we would be hunting wild turkeys in Oswego County in my lifetime, I would have thought they were more than a bit daft.

It hadn’t always been that way. When the early colonists came to the New World, turkeys were abundant. Those early immigrants called the big birds turkeys, probably because they resembled another bird they were familiar with back in the Old Country, the turkey fowl.

The turkey fowl was a bird that had been imported from Turkey, thus the name. Colonists quickly dropped the fowl part of the name and they became simply turkeys.

There were no seasons, and turkeys were hunted and eaten year round. Eventually this practice reduced the substantial turkey population to a small remnant all across the Eastern United States.

It was fortunate that in states to our south a few scattered flocks had managed to hold out in inaccessible areas. States like Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and others, protected the remnant flocks and in the early 1950s, they hit upon the idea of trapping and transferring birds to areas in their state where they had historically existed.

It worked even better than the biologists and wildlife managers had dared to hope. The transferred birds thrived and quickly expanded their range on their own once they were given the opportunity.

Turkeys began to wander across the Pennsylvania border into the Alleghany and Catskill areas of New York state in the mid 1950s, and from the flocks established by those feathered colonizers, our present day flocks were also established through an ambitious program of trap and transfer.

It has been an astonishing transformation, and a welcome one to sportsmen and New Yorkers in general. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing our magnificent wild turkeys?

I suppose most people are familiar with the story that Benjamin Franklin wanted our national bird to be the Wild Turkey instead of the bald headed eagle. It’s not just a story, it’s actually true.

He wrote about it, and the written record of his suggestion remains. He felt while the turkey was colorful, wild, useful, wary, and industrious, and in many ways reflected the American people and spirit, the eagle was, after all, a scavenger, and therefor hardly worthy to represent us as a nation. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s view, the eagle won out.

Turkey hunting has become a very popular sport in New York state, as it has in almost every state in our nation today. Whether one gets a turkey or not, being out in the fields and woods this time of year is rewarding in itself – at least it is to me.

Everything is so fresh and alive. Wildlife abounds and there is a multitude of songbirds preparing to nest and raise their young. I hate getting up early in the morning, but a morning afield in search of a big tom makes getting out of that warm bed while others are still asleep all worthwhile.

I hope all you turkey hunters appreciate what you have today. Enjoy the world around you and the chance to harvest a wonderful bird.

Some of you have no doubt already taken a bird, or perhaps you have taken two and ended your spring season, but successful or not, it’s a great time to be alive and afield.

Remember to give thanks.

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