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Wild turkey population is declining rapidly, puzzling scientists: 'It may be a bunch of things all adding together'

"I don't know that there's just one thing that's going on."

Wild turkey population is declining rapidly, puzzling scientists: 'It may be a bunch of things all adding together'

Photo Credit: iStock

Wild turkeys are one of America's most iconic animals and the mascot of Thanksgiving. While farm-raised birds are abundant, wild ones are in a more delicate position. 

The Washington Post reported that a new study shows the population of wild turkeys has declined sharply, a worrisome sign for the future health of this species.

What's happening?

In 2004, there were about seven million wild turkeys in the U.S., inhabiting every state except Alaska, the Post reported. That number was due to serious conservation efforts following World War II when wild turkeys were endangered due to hunting and habitat loss.

Although they bounced back successfully once, the population started to drop again in 2004. By 2014, the country had lost one million birds or about 15% of the population. By 2019, the number dropped another 3%.

What does the declining turkey population mean?

Scientists aren't sure exactly why this is happening, according to the Post. There are several leading theories, though, and the truth may be a combination of factors.

First of all, the U.S. has been participating in conservation efforts for many species, including predators of the turkey, such as owls and eagles. More predation could be one reason the population would drop naturally.

On the other hand, people also hunt turkeys, and it's possible that we're killing too many.

Habitat could be a factor since turkeys have specific requirements when it comes to their environment. They need open areas for their courting rituals, areas of low, thick vegetation for nesting and raising chicks, and areas with mature trees to provide nuts for them to eat in the fall. The more natural areas are torn down or polluted, the harder it is for wild turkeys to find territory that meets all their needs.

Finally, as the Earth heats up, it could be affecting the likelihood that turkey chicks survive long enough to grow up. According to the Post, earlier spring blooms could affect the availability of plant cover and edible bugs for the young chicks. The rising temperature has already been shown to have affected over 100 bird species in North and South America, so turkeys might be on the list, too.

Roger Shields, wild turkey program coordinator at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, told the Post, "I don't know that there's just one thing that's going on. It may be a bunch of things all adding together."

What's being done to protect wild turkey populations?

Tennessee is one of several states to scale back its turkey hunting season in the hope of bringing population numbers up again.

Meanwhile, study author Christopher Moorman told the Post that, for now, "We should just keep an eye on it."

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