Wild Turkey Return

(This column appeared in the November 24, 1997 Buffalo News.)

    The resourceful cartoonist Al Capp, whose "Li'l Abner" comic strip appeared in this newspaper for many years before he died, created unusual fictional creatures he called shmoos. Shmoos were perfectly designed to serve humankind: they were extraordinarily tame and prolific, they required nothing to raise, when cooked they tasted like steak and they practically jumped into your frying pan.

    Capp was a difficult man. Among other things he was a crudely artful male chauvinist and deeply reactionary in his politics, but he was often able to touch our nerves in instructive ways. His shmoos served as a metaphor for our interface with wildlife.

    Over the history of civilization -- that word an oxymoron if there ever was one -- there have been a number of real shmoos. We don't have to go to the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean where the dodo was doomed or the Galapagos Islands where ships' holds were filled with giant turtles to find shmoo-like animals and birds. We had several in North America as well.

    The penguin-like and equally flightless great auk, whose bodies served fishermen as food and bait and whose feathers stuffed pillows, was last taken from Iceland in 1844 and Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. During the 1870s 25,000 passenger pigeons had been netted daily and shipped to posh city restaurants in overstuffed railroad boxcars.

    One bird that seemed destined to follow these species from abundance into extinction because of its human-serving qualities was the wild turkey. Ornithologists estimate that there were ten million in North America when Europeans first reached these shores. In 1641 at Fort Orange (now Albany) a minister reported "so many turkeys that they came to the houses and hogpens to feed." Another author designated it "one of the commonest birds in New England." This was fortunate as those turkeys served as a diet staple for early settlers who were carving a meager existence out of a hostile wilderness.

    Here again uncontrolled harvesting finally took its toll. The last New York State19th century wild turkey was reported from Allegany County in 1844 and the species was extirpated from all of New England a few years later.

    But providentially a few reservoirs of wild turkey populations remained in the extensive forests of the southern Appalachians. Nearest to us were a few birds in Clearfield County in central Pennsylvania  Even these were threatened by the loss in the early 20th century of their favorite food crop -- the chestnut -- and by diseases that were traded back and forth with domesticated turkeys. (The barnyard birds are the same species, now bred into waddling but heavy bosomed relics of their majestic ancestors.)

    The lesson was finally learned and hunting regulations were established. It was not too late and the populations slowly grew. Unlike shmoos that never learned, turkeys modified their behavior. They become wary birds better equipped to withstand hunting pressure. They adapted to new areas and spread down out of the deep forests to open country. Thriving, their numbers expanded northward, finally crossing our Pennsylvania border into Allegany State Park around 1950.

    Buffalo Ornithological Society regional counts reflect the repopulation of this biggest game bird. The first returnee was reported in May 1951. By the 1960s there were an average of 11 each year. That rose rapidly to 60 for the 70s, 92 for the 80s and 212 for this decade. In 1995 alone almost 700 were recorded.

    Shmoo it's not. Rather the wild turkey is today not only a symbol of our heritage but also of our willingness to learn from one of our mistakes.