How wild turkey were saved from extinction and wild quail are getting revived in Alabama. Why it matters.

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Quail Forever
(Hunter Bridges/Quail Forever)

It is one of the greatest conservation success stories in Alabama history.

At the turn of the 1900s, the population of wild turkeys in our state was down to about 10,000 birds. In many counties, turkeys had completely disappeared from the landscape. 

After decades of research and trial and error beginning in the 1930s, the number of wild turkeys today may exceed 300,000, thanks to hunters, landowners and conservationists. Once gone from dozens of communities across the state, wild turkeys now reside in all 67 Alabama counties.

“I Remember” Series

In our first story in the “I remember” series, we learned how two Auburn University researchers founded The Longleaf Alliance then launched a national movement to bring back the South’s longleaf forest. In this, our second installment, we look at two game birds (wild turkey and wild quail), their history and the efforts to restore their habitats and populations in Alabama.

Wild Turkey—National Symbol

NwtF
(Jason Boggs/National Wild Turkey Federation)

Ben Franklin was right. The wild turkey should have been our national symbol.

No one really knows whether Franklin was just kidding when he penned a letter to his daughter Sarah in 1784 saying the bald eagle was a “bird of bad moral character” and then proceeded to call the wild turkey a “true original native bird.” 

But if you have ever seen a flock of turkeys glide simultaneously in an open field or down off trees in a forest, you can understand why Franklin envisioned the bird as our national symbol. 

“He (Franklin) was way more advanced than me.” Derek Alkire, National Wild Turkey Federation District Biologist for Alabama told Bham Now in a recent interview. 

“But when I think about a flock of turkeys and when they’re together, I think about the Fall — when you have mixed groups of hens, and Jake’s and Jenny’s, which are the young birds and you have the male birds around and everything is really sorting out the pecking order.

It’s like a family reunion or a family gathering. It would be cool to know exactly what they’re saying in those groups, the lessons that are being learned.”

The unity wild turkey display might be the reason Franklin admired the bird as a symbol, especially five years before our fledgling nation adopted the U.S. Constitution. Who knows?

Partnerships to Save Wild Turkey in Alabama

NWTF
(National Wild Turkey Federation)

According to Steven Mitchell, the upland game bird program coordinator for Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, it is unity that saved wild turkeys in Alabama and South.

“Protection and recovery for wild turkeys began in the 1930s after decades of unregulated market hunting and habitat destruction disseminated turkey populations nationwide, including Alabama.“The conservation movement led by hunters, landowners and the state wildlife agency Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (ADCNR-WFF) brought protection, regulations, seasons, research and habitat management as a result of funding through the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1934 from an excise tax on firearms and ammunition,” said Mitchell.

“Our leadership wasted no time in implementing this new model prior to most other states getting started. Wild turkey restocking began in the early 1940s from birds trapped in Alabama and relocated statewide as needed to populate suitable habitats.”

Screen Shot 2022 12 02 at 1.37.20 PM How wild turkey were saved from extinction and wild quail are getting revived in Alabama. Why it matters.
Lynn Boykin, former chair of Board of the National Wild Turkey Federation and hunting heritage advocate (National Wild Turkey Federation)

Throughout the years, Alabama had a number of wild turkey champions including the Alabama Wildlife Federation and National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). A leader in the movement was Lynn Boykin, former president and chairperson of the NWTF’s national board. Her efforts live on through the prestigious NWTF Lynn Boykin Hunting Heritage Award which is given annually.

Recent Decline in Wild Turkey Numbers

NWTF
(Gerald Martin/National Wild Turkey Federation)

In recent years, there has been a slight decline in the Alabama wild turkey populations. Mitchell stressed the need for everyone from all walks of life to work together.

“Turkeys are facing ever-increasing habitat issues (loss, fragmentation, degradation) which leads to increased predation and decreased reproduction issues. Considering Alabama is around 96% privately owned, landscape level population improvement is ultimately in the hands of private landowners and dependent on their land management practices. Habitat management specific to wild turkeys needs to be enhanced at landscape level across the state.”

The Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and Auburn University concluded a five year study in 2020 looking at current conditions and turkey harvest management strategies. 

The report can be found — HERE.

Last year, Auburn University and the Alabama Wildlife Federation  announced a research project to figure out why the numbers are declining and to reverse the trend.

I Remember Wild Quail in Alabama…

Quail Forever
(Quail Forever)

Once abundant in Alabama, the wild quail population has plummeted about 85% since the 1960s.

Mitchell described the crash in the numbers of wild quail this way:

“Breeding bird survey data documented a 4 percent per year decline in bobwhite abundance in Alabama beginning in the 1960s. It accelerated to a 9 percent per year decline in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. Today Alabama’s quail population remains near all-time lows.”

The disappearance of quail coincided with the loss of longleaf habitat, the removal of fire as a management tool and urbanization.

“Everything moved so fast that we probably haven’t even realized the changes to the landscapes,” described Jessica McGuire – Working Lands for Wildlife, Bobwhite Framework Program Manager for Quail Forever.

“We’ve lost our grasslands. People aren’t managing their forests the way that they used to, keeping things thinned. We’re not using fire as a management tool nearly as much anymore. These birds (quail) and a lot of upland grassland birds thrive on a landscape that is very heterogeneous. They need a lot of different qualities across the landscape. They need cover, a good food source. We’ve taken that away.”

What We Lost

Quail Forever
Longleaf pine (Quail Forever)

Hunting wild quail used to be a way of life in rural Alabama.

“It was just a part of life in Alabama,” said Mitchell. “There’re still folks around that tell us how they remember in the 70s leaving their front porch and with permission from their neighbors, walking and covering several miles, crossing farms and finding plenty of birds.”

Back then, quail hunting was one way many rural Alabamians put food on the table. 

Those times are long past.” described Mitchell.

Also lost is the sound of a wild quail.

Who remembers the beautiful and familiar call of a Northern Bobwhite?

“We are motivated by people who are forever saying, I used to hear birds out here when I was little. That’s what I want again. I want to be able to take my grandkids out for walks and hear the birds. I want to be able to take them out behind a bird dog,” added McGuire.

Steps to Bring Wild Quail Back

Quail Forever
Alabama Quail Restoration Project (Quail Forever)

The key to bringing back wild quail in Alabama is habitat and partnerships. 

Mitchell provided Bham Now with a long list of projects occurring throughout the state ranging from working on enhancing quail habitat on many of the state’s Wildlife Management Areas to working with the U.S. Forest Service, creating habitat for wild quail on the Conecuh and Talladega National Forests.

According to McGuire with Quail Forever building quail habitat is the key to bringing back wild quail.

“We are focused on building habitat first. We want to be able to keep quail as common as possible across the landscape.  They’re in an 85% decline, since the 60s due to lots of reasons. Our goal is to work with landowners, farmers, and people to incorporate wildlife habitat in their operation and make the land more compatible for quail.”

What Can YOU do to Support Wild Turkey and Wild Quail?

Quail Forever
(Quail Forever)

The good news for both the future of wild turkeys and wild quail? 

They have advocates. More importantly, you can help too. Where to start?

Below is a checklist:

Join a group:

Buy an Alabama License plate or a Wildlife Heritage license

  1. Alabama Wildlife Federation or National Wild Turkey Federation Car Tag
  2. Alabama Wildlife Heritage License
  3. Forever Wild Car tag

Local and State projects you can support

Upcoming Third Story in the I Remember Series

Forever Wild
Turkey Creek in Pinson, Alabama. (Alabama Forever Wild Program/Facebook)

In our third “I Remember” story, we will look at the lost streams and creeks of Alabama and how people are dedicated to bringing them back.

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Do you have a connection with wild turkeys and wild quails? Share your experience and resources on our social media. Tag us at @bhamnow

Sponsored by:

Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

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