Scientists call it the bird that almost wasn't.
The wild turkey, which bears little resemblance to oven-bound Butterballs roasting in countless households this week, at one time teetered on the brink of extinction before making a rousing comeback.
Wildlife biologist Haven Barnhill, who oversees Georgia's wild turkey restoration program, sees it as one of wildlife management's great triumphs.
"It's hard to believe now, but turkeys were almost extirpated from Georgia by 1900," he said. "They were limited to a few pockets and remote river swamps. They were virtually gone."
Much of the South was cleared for agriculture in the 1800s, leaving turkeys with fewer forests in which to live. At the same time, unregulated market and subsistence hunting eliminated turkeys in many areas.
By the turn of the last century, a flock that exceeded 5 million in Colonial times had dwindled to a mere 30,000, leading scientists of the era to predict they would perish altogether.
The earliest efforts to help the turkey recover focused on releasing pen-raised birds, which were easy prey for foxes and other predators and rarely survived.
Then, in 1951, a South Carolina forester named Duffy Holbrook pioneered the rocket net - a tool that could be used to capture turkeys from the remaining populations and move them to new habitats.
"Restocking has been the key to making this work," Mr. Barnhill said. "As recently as 1973, the statewide population was 17,000. That's when we began an extensive restoration project."
Georgia biologists relocated more than 4,500 wild turkeys between 1973 and 1996, Mr. Barnhill said.
"Now we have populations established all over the state, in every county, and there are 350,000 birds statewide," he said.
Restoration programs were financed mostly by sportsmen - in particular the hunters who pay excise tax on firearms and ammunition that sends revenues back to their states through the federal Pittman-Robertson Act.
Conservation groups such as the 500,000-member National Wild Turkey Federation, based in Edgefield, S.C., also play a major role in bringing the turkey back, Mr. Barnhill said.
"Just here in Georgia, since 1987, the Georgia chapter of the federation has contributed more than $2 million to turkey research and management programs," he said.
Today, with turkeys in all 159 counties, turkey hunting has become an important spring pastime for the state's 70,000 or more turkey hunters, who harvest about 28,000 birds per year.
Unlike their domestic barnyard counterparts, the wild turkey is both elusive and intelligent.
"They have incredible eyesight and are a challenge to hunt," Mr. Barnhill said. Wild turkeys are leaner than domestic birds because they walk and fly throughout their lives.
Turkey hunters enjoy the challenge of calling the gobblers one-on-one in hopes of luring a trophy bird into range.
Georgia's turkey season is in the springtime, and harvest rules allow the taking of male birds - or gobblers - only, which allows the females to survive and reproduce.
Georgia's season typically runs from late March to mid-May, with a three-gobbler-per-hunter limit - one of the most liberal in the nation.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or email@example.com.
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