North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Wild turkeys in North Carolina: The long road to recovery

Author: NCWRC blogger/Wednesday, April 05, 2017/Categories: Hunting, Wildlife Management

The recovery of the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, is one of North Carolina’s greatest wildlife success stories. But it was a long road to get our wild turkey population back to its current level.

Wild turkeys were historically plentiful in our state, but unregulated hunting and large-scale deforestation caused their population to plummet in the early 1900s. Early recovery efforts were undertaken from 1928–1946, which involved releasing pen-raised birds and eggs into the wild. Unfortunately, those birds weren’t accustomed to predators and extreme weather conditions. The birds perished, and the wild turkey population continued to crash.

Restoration efforts continued in the 1950s, soon after the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission was created. This time, wild turkey sanctuaries were established throughout the state, and wild-caught birds were released into these refuges. This “trap and transfer” program spanned the next five decades, and though it was ultimately a key aspect of restoration, it wasn’t enough by itself. In 1970, the state’s wild turkey population hit a low of 2,000 birds.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. The Commission decided to close the fall turkey hunting season, which set the stage for the wild turkey’s incredible comeback. Closing the fall season was an unpopular but necessary move.
Why did it work? Because closing the fall season prevented the overharvest of male turkeys, and protected females from accidental harvest or poaching, allowing them to breed and grow the population. This closure made all the difference, and the state’s wild turkey population rebounded to 265,000 birds in 2015.  Spring hunting seasons, for male turkeys only, were established during this time as well. 

The Commission actively monitors the state’s wild turkey population to make sure that it continues to thrive. By using the latest research, such as the recent Gobbling Chronology Project, to guide management, the Commission hopes to maintain a healthy turkey population for years to come.

For more information on wild turkeys, including hunting regulations, please visit our wild turkey webpage.

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