As our journey continues, 2001 marks widespread reforestation utilized for an unlikely hero, a bird most associated with its ubiquitous fall staples (did we mention we’re done with the summer humidity?): the wild turkey.

Though mistakenly named for the country Turkey by domesticated imports to Britain, the wild turkey is as American as a bird can possibly get – its native range actually spans across much of North America, particularly among hardwood and mixed-conifer forests. Beyond its geographic distribution, the turkey also has a famed history with none other than Benjamin Franklin, who allegedly preferred the turkey to the bald eagle as the national bird of the United States. This allegation, while never publicly orated, originated in a letter to his daughter, Sarah Bache. An excerpt in this letter from 1784 states:

“…I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage…”

Wild turkey at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.
Wild turkeys can fly quite well, unlike their domestic cousins. Photo credit: John Benson

Beyond its short-lived political history, the wild turkey also is a prominent figure among Native American tribes. It is a favored meal among many eastern tribes, and its feathers have been used for rituals and headdresses, particularly among several tribal chiefs.

Like many American icons, the wild turkey has its own tale of resilience. As an endemic species, the turkey was a prominent symbol across forests nationwide — until the 20th century. As hunting and habitat loss increased dramatically, the wild turkey dropped to numbers as low as 30,000. As protection and breeding promotion replaced rampant hunting, the wild turkey rapidly rebounded in numbers — to over 1 million by the early 1970’s, and an estimated 7 million individuals today.

American Forests teamed up with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to continue reforesting lost habitat and food sources for this bird with three distinct ventures: Operation Appleseed, Operation Oak and Operation Heartland. Operation Appleseed, aptly named for its planting of Sargent crabapple trees, restored 6,000 of these trees as fall and winter food sources across several states in the northeastern U.S., including Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Vermont, and more.

Operation Oak, on the other hand, worked on restoring the bird’s habitat front by restoring 12,000 sawtooth oaks with shelters, which replaced several oak groves lost through the conversion of southeastern forests to pine plantation. As such, we worked with NWTF to restore areas in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia.  Likewise, Operation Heartland restored bottomland hardwoods, riparian corridors and farm woodlots overtaken by agriculture with several species of oak, sycamore and eastern cottonwood across America’s heartland: Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Missouri.

However, our work with restoring food and habitat sources for the wild turkey has not stopped there. We have continued working with the NWTF to ensure wild turkey populations can remain thriving, including a habitat restoration initiative across Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia and Illinois in 2012.