Every spring, Alabama sportsmen hunt wild turkeys, a tradition stretching back to the earliest colonial days and eons before with Native Americans. However, this tradition almost vanished not so long ago.
Great flocks of wild turkeys once roamed vast forests stretching across most of North America. Faced with such abundance, people shot turkeys for food whenever they saw one. The meaty birds provided a steady source of protein for settlers moving ever westward.
But by the early 20th century turkeys became rare in many places. The birds also faced extreme habitat loss. From the end of the Civil War to the 1930s, timber companies sawed great swaths through virgin old growth forests and swamps to satisfy the lumber hunger of a growing nation. They left little behind except stumps and dirt.
“Habitat destruction, unregulated hunting and market hunting led wild turkeys to near extinction in Alabama and across the country,” explains Steve Barnett. “In the early 1900s, it was estimated that around 10,000 wild turkeys remained in Alabama.”
Barnett worked nearly 33 years as an Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries biologist before retiring in 2019. For part of that time, he served as the state Wild Turkey Project Leader. From 1986 to 2006, he participated in turkey restoration efforts. Even after retiring, he still helps part-time with the state Upland Game Bird Program.
In 1900, fewer than 100,000 eastern wild turkeys remained in the nation. Some states lost their turkeys entirely. Alarmed sportsmen banded together to demand stronger hunting and conservation laws. Turkey populations slowly rebounded. In 1940, about 11,000 turkeys called Alabama home. Still more needed to be done.
“The conservation movement led by hunters, landowners and state wildlife agencies, who knew we needed to reverse course, eventually attained effective legislation,” Barnett says. “The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 provided states with an 11 percent federal excise tax placed on sporting arms and ammunition and matched with state license dollars. This provided crucial funding for managing wildlife resources.”
Some states tried releasing pen-raised turkeys, but those didn’t live long in the wild. Clarke County and a few other places still held turkeys. In 1943, Alabama began relocating wild turkeys from places with sufficient birds to places with good habitat, but few or no turkeys. Over the years, groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation and others assisted.
“Turkeys lived in scattered pockets across the state,” Barnett says. “The swamps along the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers and other less accessible landscapes, such as the Appalachian Mountains in eastern and northeastern Alabama, still had turkeys. A somewhat isolated population remained in and around the Bankhead National Forest in Winston and Lawrence counties.”
To relocate birds, teams first needed to capture them alive. For this, they baited an area to attract turkeys and waited. Once a flock began eating the bait, they fired cannons that carried nets over the birds.
“The advent of the cannon net was a game changer and provided the advantages of camouflage, portability, multiple catches and quick set-up,” Barnett says. “The net could be folded accordion style and camouflaged with hay or leaves. Into the cannon, we inserted three heavy projectiles attached by cables to the leading edge of the net. We angled the cannon to fire over the bait. To fire the cannon, we placed black powder charges underneath it. A wire led from the blind to each charge. We set off the charges with a 6-volt battery. Sometimes, it took days for turkeys to return to the bait site. Some turkeys escaped the deployed net.”
Over the years, the state captured about 2,000 turkeys and released them in 46 counties. Most came from places now called the Fred T. Stimpson Special Opportunity Area and the Upper State SOA. Trapping and restocking peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, but continued through 2006 when healthy, sustainable populations thrived all over Alabama. Turkeys now occupy every county.
“The Alabama wild turkey restoration program was very successful over the course of six decades,” Barnett says. “We should be ever grateful for and admire those early pioneers of wild turkey restoration in Alabama. It was with a cooperative spirit along with hard work, long hours in turkey blinds and unrelenting dedication that forged the path to success. Key people who helped bring this most noble bird back from the abyss included Jim Davis, Eugene Widder, Huey Dykes and Fred Pringle.”ν
For hunting season dates, zones and other information, see outdooralabama.com/seasons-and-bag-limits/turkey-season.
John N. Felsher is a professional freelance writer who lives in Semmes, Ala. He also hosts an outdoors tips show for WAVH FM Talk 106.5 radio station in Mobile, Ala. Contact him at email@example.com or through Facebook.