Science & Technology



Wild turkey numbers are falling in some parts of the US – the main reason may be habitat loss

Marcus Lashley, University of Florida and William Gulsby, Auburn University, The Conversation on

Published in Science & Technology News

Birdsong is a welcome sign of spring, but robins and cardinals aren’t the only birds showing off for breeding season. In many parts of North America, you’re likely to encounter male wild turkeys, puffed up like beach balls and with their tails fanned out, aggressively strutting through woods and parks or stopping traffic on your street.

Wild turkeys were abundant across North America when European settlers arrived. But people killed them indiscriminately year-round – sometimes for their meat and feathers, but settlers also took turkey eggs from nests and poisoned adult turkeys to keep them from damaging crops. Thanks to this unregulated killing and habitat loss, by 1900 wild turkeys had disappeared from much of their historical range.

Turkey populations gradually recovered over the 20th century, aided by regulation, conservation funding and state restoration programs. By the early 2000s, they could be found in Mexico, Canada and every U.S. state except Alaska.

Now, however, the trend appears to be reversing in some areas. In a 2021 study, eight out of 30 states surveyed reported that turkey populations declined from 2014 to 2019, with some of the sharpest decreases in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Turkey numbers increased in 14 states, mainly in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. But even in many of those states, populations were down from historic peaks in the early 2000s. Another study in 2023 reported that turkey populations in the eastern half of the U.S. were declining by about 9% yearly, based on data from the past 50 years.

We are wildlife ecologists working to determine why turkey populations are shrinking in portions of their range. This is a classic challenge in ecology: Many factors could be at play, and it takes careful analysis to untangle them and figure out whether each trend is a cause or symptom – or just irrelevant.


We created the Wild Turkey Science podcast to make peer-reviewed science accessible to the public and provide a platform for turkey researchers and biologists to discuss their work. So far, we have reviewed numerous studies and interviewed scientists from more than a dozen states. Here are some hypotheses that have emerged:

While turkeys may appear at home in urban areas, their habitat is open forest – areas with sparse trees that allow near-full sunlight to reach herbaceous plants at ground level. Most uplands, or elevated areas, in the eastern U.S. historically were this type of dry-adapted woodland, savanna and grassland complex.

In 1792, naturalist William Bartram described the eastern U.S. as “Grande Savane,” or big savanna, a landscape with abundant wild turkeys. Traveling in Florida, Bartram wrote:

“I was awakened, in the morning early, by the cheering converse of the wild turkey cocks saluting each other from the sun-brightened tops of the lofty cypress and magnolia. They begin at early dawn, and continue till sunrise. The high forests ring with the noise of these social sentinels, the watchword being caught and repeated, from one to another, for hundreds of miles around, insomuch that the whole country is, for an hour or more, in an universal shout.”


swipe to next page


blog comments powered by Disqus