The last of the native wild turkeys living in New York disappeared in 1848. But in 1948, a small group of turkeys from Pennsylvania crossed the border into this state and decided to stay — setting up the first of New York’s modern-day turkey population.
Around 1959, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) began moving around 1,400 turkeys around New York, into areas where they had once thrived. Wild turkeys had been abundant in the state until settlers made their way across the land, clearing wooded areas for farming. Around the time turkeys disappeared from New York, about 63 percent of the state was farmland, according to the DEC. And according to a 2005 report, New York sent nearly 800 turkeys to Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Delaware and the Province of Ontario, helping to re-establish populations throughout the Northeast and Midwest.
Though turkeys spent decades in the state, the DEC brought about 75 of them to Long Island — specifically to South Haven County Park and to Hither Hills State Park — between 1992 and 1994. The program was able to re-establish wild turkeys because the environment was more suitable for their survival. They’ve done more than survive: There were an estimated 3,000 in 2009 and there are now estimated to be 6,000. Overall, however, turkey populations have declined statewide, to 180,000 today from 250,000 to 300,000 in 2001.
Turkeys have repopulated so rapidly on the Island mainly due to the ideal conditions for them to live. When land once used for farming was abandoned and repopulated with brush and woodlands, the suitable habitat for turkeys was re-established.
Young turkeys, called poults, are preyed upon heavily by mink, weasels, domestic dogs, coyotes, raccoons and skunks, according to the DEC. Their only defense against predators is the ability to scatter and hide in a frozen state until the mother considers it safe again. About 60 to 70 percent of the poults die within a month of hatching. Adult birds are preyed on by foxes, bobcats, coyotes and great-horned owls.
In 2009 the state of New York allowed the hunting of turkeys under restrictions. Hunting is split into the spring and the fall seasons. In May there is a small window of hunting, which is “designed to have little or no impact on the population,” according to the DEC. “Since this season occurs after most of the hens have mated, the females continue to nest and produce a new generation of wild turkeys.” In Suffolk County, the fall hunting season is from Nov. 16 to Nov. 29.
You can help to monitor the Suffolk County wild turkey population by visiting www.dec.ny.gov.