A 16-year-old girl wearing a retro Metallica shirt could not believe her eyes.
“I’ve never seen a turkey. He’s so big,” she said.
The young lady was referring to a hefty golden-breasted gobbler we had displayed at Eco-Fest at Shangri-La Botanical Gardens in Orange, TX. The tall, docile bird was strutting his stuff and drawing a crowd.
She was not the only one that was shocked to see a turkey.
Hundreds came by to see it and every one of them left hearing that wild turkeys are the epitome of a wildlife conservation success story.
They also learned East Texas is seeing a return of eastern turkeys due to the efforts of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the hunter-founded National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF).
Our Wild Wishes® program grants wildlife encounters to children with a terminal illness or loss of a parent or sibling. We are mentoring many of them to be conservation ambassadors.
Eleven-year-old Jaxon sat in with the big gobbler and told passers-by about wild turkeys and had lots of fun making turkey calls to incite gobbles.
And if that didn’t get them the baby turkeys did.
We brought two newly hatch bronze-breasted poults and they absolutely blew away everyone who saw them.
“Their wild cousins will be born shortly out in the woods, deserts, swamps and mountains of America. If we want wild turkeys to thrive then we need to make their habitat healthy and do our best to restore them in areas where they are missing,” I told one gentleman.
I’m not saying he shed a tear when I let him pet one of the poults but he was definitely moved.
The wildlife conservation community needs to bring more people in if we want to secure the future for not only wild turkeys but hundreds of other species and their vanishing habitat.
And that will require moving the hearts of the public.
Legendary wildlife host and zoo director “Jungle” Jack Hannah once told me that you must move the heart before you change the mind when it comes to wildlife. He said this while telling kids from our Wild Wishes® program about the value of zoological facilities to conservation and giving props to excise taxes on sporting goods funding everything from game wardens to land acquisitions.
In my opinion, hunting-based conservation groups have done great work in the field but have missed in moving the heart.
I want to conserve turkeys because I grew up in a family that hunted for its food and dreamed of the day I would one day see wild turkeys in the field.
As a youngster there were virtually none in the Pineywoods where I grew up due to poaching, lack of natural fire and habitat loss. Now, groups like the NWTF are helping bring them back.
I first encountered a wild turkey on a day lease in Llano in the Texas Hill Country and since then have had deep reverence for America’s greatest game bird.
Many people left Eco-Fest thinking turkeys were amazing too and were armed with more information about the positive aspects of turkey conservation.
We need to reach a broader audience with a pro-conservation message in ways that people have never considered.
Bringing a big gobbler and some poults to a community event did that and having kids trained up to talk turkey (in Jaxon’s case literally) made people think.
Me and my wife Lisa have dedicated our life to helping hurting children and training them to be wildlife conservationists. We believe these kids are not the next generation of conservationists.
They are the NOW generation.
We have just begun this Turkey Revolution and will unveil many more projects spearheaded by these wonderful young people for not only turkeys but many species.
And with wildlife, understanding is only the beginning. People must find a way to appreciate wild animals enough to care whether or not they exist.
Throughout decades of research, time spent in the field from Canada to California to seemingly every corner of my home state of Texas, I have come to a conclusion.
No creature in North America is linked more to healthy forests than the wild turkey. And no creature has the potential to captivate people in all corners of the nation than these great birds.
Whether they are the striking Rio Grandes in the Texas Hill Country, Eastern turkeys in the big woods of the Northeast, Oceloas in Florida’s swamps, Merriam’s in mountain forests of the West or Gould’s in the high deserts, turkeys desperately need healthy habitat.
All animals do of course but some have done a much better of adapting to mans’ meddling of forest management, invasive exotics and urban sprawl.
And while there are urban centers where turkeys have adjusted, for the most part unlike whitetail deer and coyotes, turkeys need primo habitat to thrive.
If we can make the woods better for turkeys, it will be better for deer and the threatened Louisiana pine snake and the gopher tortoise and a host of other native wildlife desperately needing healthy ecosystems.
The National Wild Turkey Federation and various state fish and game departments have done an incredible job of turkey restoration and enhancement but they need the public’s help.
I have begun a quest to capture quality photographs of Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Eastern and Oceola in 2019.
Hunters call this quest the Grand Slam and while I will be taking a hunt or two this year, this quest is to document with a camera these great birds and to log everything discovered along the way.
I live a stone’s throw from Louisiana and a friend recently sent photos of eastern turkeys near their home.
This inspired me to look more at Louisiana’s turkey population.
As of now it sits at 60,000 but that is down from a historic high of as many as 1,000,000 birds.
Digging into these types of stories is what this is all about it. I’m calling it the Turkey Revolution and it will encompass years of research, reaching out to the public via many media platforms and searching out stories in the field.
If you have an interesting observation on wild turkeys, perhaps see a rare color phase bird or have anything related to them to share email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founding father Benjamin Franklin famously opined that the wild turkey would make a better representative of America than the bald eagle.
After all eagles are scavengers he said!
While I can’t see an image of the gobbling turkey intimidating America’s enemies, I can see the story of these great birds move the hearts of the public toward wanting healthier forests and more abundant wildlife of all types.
Putting a gobbler on a flag might have been a terrible way to cap the Revolutionary War but for a Turkey Revolution that might actually be pretty cool.