WORTON -- He's Tom turkey to some. To others he's gobbler, jake or Pilgrim steak.
But whatever name he goes by, the wild turkey is back and a growing legion of sportsmen and outdoor lovers are discovering that the wary and high-strung bird is both alluring and hard to find.
Largely because of turkey propagation efforts by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and a steady decline in the state's waterfowl population, the wild turkey has become the game bird of choice for discriminating hunters.
"I truly believe turkeys will be the No. 1 hunting bird in the nation soon," said Kenny Haines, a Kent County gun shop owner, Canada goose guide and organizer of the second annual Turkey Expo held during the weekend in Worton outside Chestertown.
Despite the weekend's unexpectedly sunny weather, turkey aficionados flocked to a community center to learn more about hunting the bird that Benjamin Franklin unsuccessfully lobbied to become the symbol of the young nation. Expo attendees got tips on calling turkeys, identifying the bird, and on hunting safely.
At one time, wild turkeys could be found in every part of the state. But development, clearing land for farm crops and market hunting reduced the population so much that in 1919 the state game warden declared the bird so endangered that it existed in only a few wooded pockets in Western Maryland.
In 1920 state natural resources officials ended legal turkey hunting in Garrett County, the bird's last refuge, and propagation efforts were undertaken to increase the turkey population.
The bird was returned to the Western Maryland counties with modest success, and a fall hunting season was resumed in 1949. But the turkey flocks once abundant in Maryland remained absent from most counties until 1979 when a major plan to trap and transplant the birds was begun.
Turkeys, trapped in Western Maryland and transported across the Chesapeake Bay, were released in Worcester County in 1982 by the DNR. More birds were released in other counties during subsequent years. And now, wild turkeys thrive throughout the Eastern Shore, according to Doug Wigfield, a DNR wildlife manager for the Lower Shore counties.
The state's wild turkey population was estimated last year to be 12,000 birds. Last year's gobbler season -- the first in decades that included parts of the Eastern Shore -- saw hunters bag a record 1,121 turkeys during the spring hunting season.
Turkey hunter Russ Melanson of Howard County said much of the success of the new sport depends on the hunters themselves.
"Safety is the future of the sport," he said. Hunting turkeys requires patience, an ability to duplicate the call of the bird and skill at blending into the natural background. Camouflage clothing from head to toe is a must.
Mr. Melanson warned that if hunters foolishly mistake each other for turkeys, the state could require them to wear fluorescent orange, just as is mandatory for deer hunters.
Because a turkey's eyesight is keen, an orange vest would make it harder for a hunter to get within range of the prey.
This year's spring season, during which hunters can legally bag only two birds, is from April 18 through May 16. Hunting will be permitted in Allegany, Calvert, part of Dorchester, Frederick, Garrett, Howard, part of Kent, Montgomery, Somerset, part of Queen Anne's, Washington and Worcester counties.
A brief fall season, Nov. 5-9, is set for Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties.