Wild turkeys in Harford the result of a sustained restoration effort [Editorial]

A wild turkey hen leads her poults along a woodline in a Jarrettsville yard on Sunday morning, Aug. 4.
A wild turkey hen leads her poults along a woodline in a Jarrettsville yard on Sunday morning, Aug. 4. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF, Homestead Publishing)

In recent years, wild turkeys have become relatively common in Maryland, seen fairly regularly in wild areas and parks, and even turning up from time to time in more suburban areas.

The photograph published in Wednesday's edition of The Aegis showing a hen and her five poults in a rural Jarrettsville neighborhood shows why the population of wild turkeys has remained healthy, but it gives no indication of the human effort that went into ensuring turkeys could thrive in lands their ancestors had called home for millennia.


A 2003 Maryland Department of Natural Resources report on wild turkeys in the state details the sorry condition of the turkey population in the early 1900s. In pre-colonial and colonial times, turkeys were a valuable and fairly plentiful food resource for settlers and Native Americans living in Maryland. By 1919, there was but a remnant turkey population in the state, confined largely to Garrett County. So small was that Garrett County population that from 1920 to 1933, there was a ban on turkey hunting in the county.

A variety of efforts were tried to re-establish turkey populations, most centering on raising wild birds on farms and attempting to use that stock to spawn new, self-sustaining wild populations. That tactic didn't work, though by 1970, preservation and management efforts had resulted in a restoration of turkey populations to Garrett and Allegany counties.

Starting in the early 1970s, state biologists began using a new tactic: Trapping wild turkeys in areas where there were healthy populations and resettling those birds in areas where there was favorable turkey habitat, but no turkeys. The first successes were seen in Calvert County, which is essentially a rural peninsula flanked on the east by the Chesapeake Bay and on the west by the tidal estuary portion of the Patuxent River.

Based on the success of the Calvert County turkey reintroduction program, the 2003 state report on turkeys goes on to say another 1,129 turkeys were trapped and transplanted between 1979 and 2001 to other locations throughout Maryland, including in Harford County.

The turkeys photographed in Jarrettsville earlier this week, not to mention gangs of birds seen in Forest Hill, Bel Air and other more suburban parts of the county, are the spawn of that effort.

There is a cost associated with such programs, and it may come as a surprise to some where the money came from. As the 2003 state report on turkeys notes: "The restoration effort was funded entirely with revenue from hunting license sales and Pittman Robertson funds."

This comes as no surprise to hunters, as most hunters and anglers are well aware that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was hunters and anglers who gave rise to the early conservation movement in this country. Indeed, the "Pittman Robertson funds" used in the Maryland wild turkey restoration effort come from a federal tax on ammunition signed into law on Sept. 2, 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and named for sponsors Sen. Key Pittman of Nevada and Rep. A. Willis Robertson of Virginia, according to a history of the program posted on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife web site.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service goes on to note other successes made possible by the federal tax on ammunition: "Since then, numerous species have rebuilt their populations and extended their ranges far beyond what they were in the 1930s. Among them are the wild turkey, white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, wood duck, beaver, black bear, giant Canada goose, American elk, desert bighorn sheep, bobcat, mountain lion and several species of predatory birds."

It's worth noting that a similar federal excise tax has been levied against fishing tackle since 1941 and the proceeds paid by anglers used to bring about similar restorations of aquatic species.

The government hand of wildlife management, while sometimes held in low regard, has been responsible for righting some of the most egregious wrongs done to the natural heritage of our country. And that hand has been financially aided to a very large degree by hunters and anglers by the taxes they pay on the equipment that makes their sports possible.

In Harford County, a primary benefit of these efforts is that it is possible to take a walk in a wild or semi-wild area close to home and see some of the creatures that have been around since long before anyone had any idea that there would be a place called Harford County.