Making a home for turkeys Relocation: Maryland's wild turkey population has grown to more than 25,000 as a result of a "trap and transplant" program that creates favorable habitats for the birds on farms throughout the state.

November 23, 1997|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Go looking for wild turkeys on Rip Poole's farm on a day like yesterday and chances are you won't find one. Perhaps they're lying low because they know what time of year it is, the most dangerous week of all for their kind, especially their plump domestic cousins.

The more likely reason is that wild turkeys almost always stay out of sight, especially when winter is approaching. Shy and skittish by nature, they generally can't even be gobbled out of hiding until mating season arrives in the spring.

And that's just fine with Poole, who, with the help of the National Wild Turkey Federation, has planted and groomed his 135-acre farm in northwest Harford County specifically to make it a comfortable hideaway for turkeys and other wildlife. From the long line of unharvested corn and sorghum in a meadow along Deer Creek to the surrounding wooded hills, Poole's property and adjoining lands offer the birds food and cover throughout the year.

That's one of the main reasons his front lawn was selected as the site for the release of 17 turkeys last winter by Maryland wildlife officials. In a flutter of colors, the 14 hens and three toms bolted from a row of cages and flew straight for Deer Creek, landing on the far side of the meadow and then running herky-jerky for the brush.

"We were able to follow each one until his feet hit the ground," Poole said yesterday, gazing out across his land from the very spot.

The release was one of the last installments of the Department of Natural Resources' successful "trap-and-transplant" program. By relocating 1,060 birds since its beginning in 1979, the program has helped boost Maryland's wild turkey population to more than 25,000.

Before, turkeys had virtually disappeared from all but the state's three westernmost counties. Now, with wild turkeys again living in every county in the state, the program is headed into its first of three winters with no planned releases, and Poole and other participants have begun waiting to see where the turkeys will thrive and where they will fail.

"We'll see how they do on their own," said Steve Bittner, a state forest game manager for the DNR and its resident wild turkey authority.

But the birds' abundance doesn't mean they're easy to find. That became clear yesterday during a 90-minute midday walk across Poole's property with him and Bill Rowan, president of the Maryland chapter of the Wild Turkey Federation.

It was a fine walk nonetheless, with the sun breaking through the clouds long enough to heat the wild berries and fallen leaves into an aromatic bouquet, at times as spicy as a warm pumpkin pie. But in all the likely places for turkey -- alongside rows of cornstalks, at the wooded edges of clearings or along a path where Poole recently scattered cracked corn -- there were neither turkeys nor any signs of recent turkey scratchings.

It was a contrast to spring, when Poole heard the toms gobbling and calling for weeks on end during mating season. Then there was the walk early this fall, when he watched a hen and her seven babies, or poults, walking single file across a field toward a line of brush.

But the very qualities that often make turkeys hard to spot is one of the secrets of their recent success.

"They're not real good at putting up with human disturbance," Bittner said. That serves them particularly well during the brief hunting seasons in spring and fall.

Turkeys became scarce in the state mostly through overhunting, but also because they weren't willing to strike out on their own in search of new territory if a superhighway or a new housing development stood in their way. So, pockets of the state that ran out of turkeys tended not to get any wanderers from elsewhere.

That's why the state, with the help of volunteers from the Wild Turkey Federation, decided to help them along by trapping some Western Maryland birds and moving them to woodlands that have matured since the last local turkeys had been around.

And that's where people such as Poole have come in handy.

At 56, he's wanted to do something like this with his farm for about 25 years. Though his family still raises sheep and some hens, they haven't worked the land much for years. He makes his living as a general contractor and by selling duck boats.

"I'd always wanted to do this," he said. "It was just a question of money."

The federation was able to answer that question by helping with the planting of the corn and the sorghum, as well as a row of sunflowers. The sunflowers have been mowed, but he'll leave the corn and sorghum standing for the turkeys, the deer, the geese and other animals to harvest. Over the years he has also planted holly, barberries and crab apple, which are also reliable food supplies in the colder months.

Wild turkeys don't do well everywhere they're transferred, of course. Although Bittner said they've showed an ability to adapt to smaller tracts of land than in the past, Rowan said that broods of 20 to 30 still need about 600 acres to feel comfortable. In some areas, the rapid pace of development is already squeezing those limits.

But Poole feels good about the chances that the birds released on his land won't be pressured by bulldozers and housing developments.

"Most of the predominate land owners around here are interested in keeping their land," he said. "I'd say we're pretty lucky."

So are the turkeys, especially on a week like this one.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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