Wild turkeys finding a home in Connecticut

Let's talk turkey.

The wild turkey population in the 1800s was nonexistent in Connecticut because of deforestation and several ensuing harsh winters. As recently as 40 years ago, a border-to-border search for the gobblers would have yielded nothing. But thanks to conservation efforts and the reintroduction of the birds back into the wild, they can be found in all 169 cities and towns today.

The Connecticut Audubon Society on Friday released its Top Ten Turkey Towns and ranked New London sixth in the state. Litchfield came in at number one. The designation for New London, however, extends beyond the borders of the city. Milan Bull, the Connecticut Audubon's senior director of science and conservation, said an estimated 66 birds were found within a 15-mile radius from the center of New London. That includes as far east as Groton, as far west as Niantic and far north as Quaker Hill.

That may not seem like a lot, but many birds go uncounted, and part of the circle encompasses Long Island Sound, he said. The wild turkey population is calculated through bird counts around Christmastime and in the summer.

Bull said the bird counts aren't done in the entire state, so these are the best estimates that can be made with the data gathered.

"Turkeys are highly adaptable birds," he said. "They have habituated to people and have been found roosting on roofs and even found in urban areas such as downtown Bridgeport."

State wildlife biologists estimate the population of wild turkeys at 30,000 to 35,000 birds. During the wintertime, flocks of a dozen or more can be seen foraging through forests and parks, in suburban areas and along roadsides.

"Connecticut residents can be thankful at this season that our forest habitats are healthy enough to sustain a large population of wild turkeys," said Alex Brash, president of the society. "As we say so often, birds are an indicator of environmental health, and in this case, the news is excellent."

According to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, attempts in the 1950s to the early 1970s to restore the wild turkey population through artificial propagation were unsuccessful.

State wildlife managers came up with a different idea. They went to New York and attracted the birds with bait, using rockets to fire a large, lightweight net over them. Between 1975 and 1992, 356 wild turkeys were released at 18 sites throughout the state, according to the DEEP website.

The restoration efforts were so successful that sportsmen have been able to hunt wild turkeys since 1981. In Connecticut, the firearms turkey hunting season lasts for about a month in the spring and another month in the fall. Bowhunting is also allowed during certain times of the year.

Bull said undeveloped areas have grown into mature forests, where the trees produce mast or tree nuts, which not only feed turkeys but attract other wildlife such as black bears and white-tailed deer.

"Like the saying goes, 'If you build it, they will come,'" Bull said.

i.larraneta@theday.com

Top 10 turkey towns:

1. Litchfield
2. Barkhamsted
3. Woodbury
4. Hartford
5. Greenwich
6. New London
7. New Haven
8. Oxford
9. Sharon
10. Durham

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