Nowadays, wild turkeys are thriving throughout Oklahoma – but that wasn’t always the case. Like the bison, the state’s wild turkey population has had its own brush with extinction, but in recent times the numbers of these resilient natives have rebounded.
Visitors to Oklahoma from the eastern United States in the mid-1800s reported numerous wild turkeys everywhere – both in the wild, and on the dinner plate. As the human population swelled, though – particularly after the turn of the century – too many appearances on the dinner plate began to take their toll on the wild population.
Subsistence hunting by the burgeoning human population wasn’t the only factor reducing turkey numbers. In clearing land for planting, and cutting timber for building, humans also eliminated large swaths of turkey habitat. By the early 1900s, many Oklahomans might go their entire lives without so much as laying eyes on a wild turkey.
By the mid-20th century, with wild turkey numbers statewide probably not exceeding one thousand, the state wildlife department started attempting to re-establish the birds. In 1948, a handful of turkeys captured in Texas were released in Harper County.
That initial flock reproduced so well that by 1960, populations in the western part of the state were thriving on their own. Efforts to restore turkey numbers in eastern Oklahoma lagged somewhat, but populations eventually stabilized in the mid-1970s. Currently, the wild turkey population in all 77 counties is self-sustaining.
The state overall is home to three subspecies of wild turkey. The Rio Grande subspecies ranges throughout the state, with the Eastern subspecies limited to eastern and southeastern counties. The far western panhandle is home to a smaller population of the Merriam’s subspecies.
The decades-long restocking effort yielded a wealth of information on turkeys’ dietary preferences and habitat requirements. Landowners seeking to attract more wild turkeys can benefit from consultation with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, and federal cost-share programs exist that can help pay for some of the necessary practices.
For more information on the history, ecology, and management of wild turkeys, visit the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s website.