Wild turkeys patrol their home territory in a backyard in southern New Hampshire.
Photo Credit : Joel Laino
In the mid-1960s, the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department published a chart for hunters summing up conditions for various game species. The ratings ranged from “Excellent” (snowshoe hare in the north) to “Fair” (pheasant) to “Extinct” (passenger pigeon). Next to “Turkey” appeared a single word: “None.” As in other states across the Northeast, the North American wild turkey—a native species that had once numbered in the millions—had been absent from the New Hampshire landscape for more than a century. After decades of forest clearing and unregulated hunting, the last sighting of wild turkeys in the state was in the town of Weare, in 1854.
The landscape at the time of the report, though, was changing. Biologists had recently begun trapping wild birds and relocating them to a handful of former territories along the East Coast and throughout the Midwest, and were seeing success. In 1969, New Hampshire took a shot. It swapped 31 fishers for a flock of turkeys from West Virginia and relocated them to Pawtuckaway State Park in the southeastern part of the state. But the transplanted birds suffered high predation and back-to-back extreme winters—winters that also knocked the whitetail-deer population to an all-time low—and the flock disappeared.
In January 1975, a young Fish & Game biologist named Ted Walski tried again, this time with funding from the federal Wildlife Restoration Program. Suspecting that the West Virginia strain of turkeys lacked the hardiness to survive New Hampshire’s climate, Walski looked to the Allegheny Mountains of western New York, the last holdout of native wild turkeys in the Northeast.
Worried that Pawtuckaway’s mostly wooded habitat had contributed to the earlier failure, Walski picked the Connecticut River Valley town of Walpole for his original release site. The town had plenty of mixed forestland and reliable food sources beyond the turkeys’ preferred diet of seeds and nuts, including concentrations of crabapple trees, rose hips, and sharp-thorned barberry bushes. And, crucially, the town counted 13 active dairy farms. The corn kernels left behind on the farms’ manure-covered fields, Walski thought, would provide an important crop that could help the flocks get through a hard winter, when their primary food supplies would be buried under snow. With a colleague from Fish & Game, he released 25 Allegheny Mountains turkeys near Blake’s Farm, at the Sawyer Farm, and at the Graves family farm in Walpole—and began monitoring them.
At New Hampshire’s latitude, mature female turkeys will lay a clutch of a dozen eggs in late April or May. In a typical year, six or seven chicks will survive from those dozen. As the Walpole flocks grew, Walski returned again and again to capture birds and move them to farms in 15 other areas of the state. Those were the days before Fish & Game had set up regional offices, and Walski spent more than one night sleeping in barns, to be up with the turkeys come daylight.
He learned everything he could about Meleagris gallopavo silvestris, the largest and most abundant of the five subspecies of North American wild turkey. On a frigid April Fool’s Day in 1978, Walski sat shivering in a blind near Aldrich Brook on the Walpole/Westmoreland line, waiting for a flock of turkeys to come into range of a new contraption: a 40-by-40-foot net made of two-inch nylon mesh, rolled up and camouflaged by leaves and hay, ready to launch with three rockets. The turkeys came onto the bait, and Walski detonated the launcher.
“There was this big explosion, and the damned net traveled only two or three feet,” he recalled, years later. “The drag weights had frozen to the ground!” After that, he learned to put plastic sheeting beneath the weights on frigid days, and got pretty good at firing the “rocket net” over an unsuspecting group of birds a hundred feet distant.
He continued trapping and moving turkeys, and the flocks continued to multiply. By the spring of 1980, the population in the Connecticut River Valley had grown into the high hundreds, and Walski could justify a short, lottery-only hunting season to help manage the growth. He went on the road and spoke at libraries, at Rotary breakfasts, at Lions Club meetings—wherever there were people who could be educated. Some 700 permits were issued that inaugural season, and hunters took 31 male “toms.”
In March 1995, with the population well established and spreading on its own, Walski made his final relocation, transporting a flock from Cheshire County to Sanbornton at the western edge of Lake Winnipesaukee. Nearly two decades later, wild turkeys have moved into all corners of the Granite State, from New Castle to Pittsburg, an extraordinary success story for a reintroduced species—and one that has played out in the other New England states, as well. The Eastern wild turkey has reclaimed all of its original range across the Northeast except for far northern Maine, “and we’re working on that,” Walski notes. Now the official state wildlife biologist for New Hampshire Fish & Game’s southwestern region, he’s one of the preeminent wild-turkey experts in the country, still as engaged and active as ever in his 69th year. He estimates the total number of wild turkeys in New Hampshire at 40,000, “probably close to carrying capacity.”
The more he’s learned about turkeys over the years, the less surprised he is at their success. But there was one thing Ted Walski didn’t see coming. He used to believe that access to open farmland would be the key to the turkeys’ survival in the state. Back in 1975, New Hampshire had 618 operating dairy farms; 35 years later, as the wild-turkey population continued to explode, that number was down to 130, and in Walpole today, only a handful of dairy farms are still in business. Yet the turkeys continue to make it through the hard winters.
“The corn in the cow manure,” Walski quips, “turned out to be not nearly as important as backyard birdfeeders.”