Recently I was talking to a man on the park about the wild turkeys that roam the park. He had just moved back to Erie after a long fifty years in New Jersey. He said that when he left the area, he could not remember seeing Wild Turkeys anywhere on the park, or for that matter, in the whole of Northwestern Pennsylvania area. He wondered what was going on and how they became so widespread now.
I explained to him that there were many turkeys on Presque Isle in the 1700s and early into the 1800s. In fact, turkeys were always abundant, and roamed widely throughout all of Northwestern Pennsylvania. For that reason, the birds quickly became a reliable and important food source for the early settlers in the Erie area. However, during the middle 1800s, more regions and towns grew and began to replace the thick forest and woodlands. With the increase of open fields and farms, settlers began to harvest many more turkeys. When the birds lost much of their natural cover, hunters also began shooting them and selling them in the towns.
This combined action caused what was known as the great turkey kill-off of the 1800s. Over the next century, with hunting pressure constant, the turkey population was further decimated by widespread loss of habitat and the clear-cutting of the eastern hardwood forests. Without the trees, the turkeys became proverbial sitting ducks for the hunters. By the early 1900s, only a few thousand wild turkeys remained in the rugged ridges and valleys of Pennsylvania’s south-central area. Almost no turkeys could be found in this area from 1900 until the early1960s. As the New Jersey gentleman told me, there were none on Presque Isle when he was out there in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.
During the 1960s, the state game commission began working to establish new colonies of the birds at various suitable places within the state. The field biologists began noticing turkeys in some unlikely habitats around farms and near towns. It was at this point that they decided to conduct experiments to determine exactly how adaptable these birds had become.
They began placing birds at new locations across the state. Presque Isle was one of them. A biologist named Jerry Wunz felt that the park would be a perfect place to try to start a colony. He placed about a dozen birds on the park. They successfully lived on the park for about 12 years before predators and high water drove them out. However, over the last 10 or so years, the birds have returned naturally to the peninsula, and now are quite numerous.
If you walk or drive on the park today, you are likely to see many rafters of turkey going about their business, rummaging, scratching and pecking their way across the many open areas of the peninsula. Because they are actually a very adaptive bird and Presque Isle is perfect for them, their population on the park is large and growing. Keep an eye out for them; they are fun to watch, especially in the spring when the males are parading and prancing for the females.
See you on the park!!
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