The wild turkey in West Virginia has to be the most important game bird. The Eastern wild turkey has responded well to sound wildlife practices.
In reality, wild turkey have been in what is now West Virginia for several thousand years. Excavation at a 3,000-year old archaeological site in Hancock County produced turkey bone fragments.
An abundance of turkey was in Eastern North America when the European settlers arrived in the mid-1700s. Wild turkeys were living well in this state until the railroads arrived during the logging era of 1880 to 1920. This once-common woodland bird became rare in all but the most remote areas of this state. At around 1900, biologists estimated the wild turkey population to be about 1,000 birds. Today, the current population of wild turkey has to be at least 130,000 birds.
It is easy to identify a wild turkey from the domestic turkey. Wild turkeys have longer legs and neck. Their heads are smaller with a more streamlined body. The legs of wild birds are reddish while domestic turkeys have black or gray legs.
For a young wild turkey, the year begins in the late winter when the male starts gobbling to announce his claims to territory. After breeding in late March through mid-April, the nest building and egg laying begins. The hens usually choose the nesting sites. They are usually beneath small trees in abandoned fields, laurel patches, honeysuckle tangles or near woodland roads left by logging operations.
Wild turkey hens will usually have a clutch of 8-12 eggs. The incubation period will last about 28 days. During this time, the spring gobbler hunting opens to permit surplus males or gobblers to be harvested so as not to harm the wild turkey population (the males destroy the eggs). The young hatch in late May and early-to-middle June with the sex ratio nearly equal.
The first attempt to stock turkey in West Virginia was about 1928. The birds used in this stocking were raised at the French Creek Game Farm. Between 1933 and 1940, over 3,000 farm turkeys were released. The majority of these stockings were a failure because farm turkeys usually do not survive in a wild environment, especially during the winter months.
In the early 1940s, another attempt was made to stock artificially wild turkeys using a different technique. Two releases were made, and both were failures. In the 1960s, an attempt to stock game farm birds was tried in the southern and western counties where the winters are not as harsh. This also turned out to a dismal failure.
The first successful program was initiated in 1953, which involved trapping only wild turkeys in an area of relative abundance and releasing them where the turkey population was low, but the habitat was favorable. This method resulted in the released wild turkeys being able to adapt and expand. Over the years, this wild turkey transplant program has turned out to be an overwhelming success.
Wild turkey enthusiasts need to remember that wild turkey is a forest dweller that relies heavily on natural forest foods for most of the year. From our own research program, game biologists have learned that habitat alteration and/or destruction is the leading cause for wild turkey populations to decrease. This knowledge has resulted in some conflicts with human population. However, free-ranging dogs can also be detrimental to the wild turkey population, along with increased recreational facilities and other developments.
West Virginia has less human population than in 1950, or sixty years ago. This could be one of the reasons why our wild turkey program has been a success. Today, state nimrods are indeed fortunate to have one of the best wild turkey populations of any state in the nation.