Hunter helps preserve turkeys born to be wild Man puts down gun to volunteer in project

November 21, 1995|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,SUN STAFF

William J. Rowan loves to talk turkey. He also lives to hunt them.

So it was a bit of shock to his hunting buddies earlier this month when Bill Rowan didn't show up at his Western Maryland hunting trailer for the fall wild turkey season. Instead, he spent that week as a volunteer helping two flocks of the wild birds

survive their first winter in the Sweet Air section of Gunpowder Falls State Park.

"It was the first turkey season I've missed in eight years," Mr. Rowan said.

The wooded terrain between Sweet Air Road and the Little Gunpowder Falls is only the second area in Baltimore County where wild turkey flocks -- which had largely vanished by the turn of the century as land was cleared for agriculture -- have been reintroduced.

The project reflects a nationwide trend for preserving the habitat of the wild turkey, a native fowl that Benjamin Franklin wanted as the national bird.

While the number of wild turkeys has doubled in the past 10 years in the United States because of conservation, the number killed also has increased. Wild turkey hunting is the country's fastest growing game sport, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The two flocks of turkeys released in Gunpowder in March have nothing to fear from hunters as long as they stay on park land, where hunting them is prohibited and carries a stiff fine.

They have more to fear from natural predators such as foxes and the red-tailed hawk. Another danger turkeys face is starving to death in a harsh winter.

That's where Mr. Rowan comes in. He spent the week of hunting season, which ran from Nov. 5 to Nov. 11, buying bags of fertilizer and sacks of wheat and clover seed. Then, along 8 acres of open farmland nestled amid trees, state wildlife division workers planted the seeds in plots -- sort of a food bank for turkeys.

"The turkeys and the deer will soon deplete the natural supply of acorns and soft fruit," Mr. Rowan said. "If we have a harsh winter, the turkeys are going to need the green stalks of the winter wheat and clover to survive."

In recent years, the state Department of Natural Resources wildlife division stocked wild turkeys near Prettyboy Reservoir. But, poachers, bad hatchings and too much human contact resulted in a disappointing project.

David G. Long, a land management official for the wildlife division, is excited about the home for wild turkeys in Sweet Air, though.

"Because of the abundant cover, the isolated nature of this part of the park and now these food plots we're putting in, this is the best natural habitat site for wild turkeys anywhere in the county," he said.

The planting was done with the aid of nearly $1,000 from the National Wild Turkey Federation -- part of the proceeds raised by the federation's Free State chapter, which Mr. Rowan heads.

The national federation has spent more than $2 million in the past decade on 1,110 wild turkey habitat projects in the country. Ronnie E. Brenneman, director of conservation projects at the federation headquarters in Edgefield, S.C., said most of the programs are done on land open to hunting.

"But if we can create a wild turkey habitat for the pure enjoyment of the bird, we think it is worthwhile," Mr. Brenneman said.

Last year, 650,000 turkeys were killed -- harvested as the industry puts it -- nationwide. In Maryland, the 2,300 turkeys killed was nearly double the number in 1989.

The number of turkey hunters in the country has increased by nearly 400,000 since 1989, to 2.2 million. The number of turkey hunters in Maryland is 17,300, based on license applications.

Until this year, turkey hunting was allowed only in the fall in the four westernmost counties. This year for the first time, a statewide spring hunting season was held, and in Baltimore County the result was three birds bagged.

Despite the popularity of the sport, the wild turkey population increases steadily. The nation has an estimated 4.2 million wild turkeys, nearly double the 1989 figure.

A flock of turkeys, as a rule, needs an area of one square mile to survive, said Steven L. Bittner, game program manager for DNR. The Sweet Air habitat at 634 acres is slightly less than a square mile.

The 15 birds moved to Sweet Air -- two males and 13 females -- were trapped in Allegany and Washington counties, Mr. Bittner said.

The Sweet Air flocks apparently have gotten off to a good start. Residents have reported sighting hens crossing local country roads with poults -- young turkeys -- in tow.

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