Do wild turkeys threaten the future of Maine’s oaks?

Is the future of oaks in the forests of Maine being threatened by the large and expanding population of wild turkeys?

This is a question which has not been raised to any degree except by a few landowners, consulting foresters and deer hunters. Very few people are aware of the relationship between wild turkeys, blue jays, wild animals and birds. Where are the environmental organizations and individuals who should be very much concerned?

Wild turkeys were introduced into Maine in 1977 by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW). Before that time there had been no wild turkeys in Maine since colonial days when the species was extirpated. The oak forest in Maine has evolved since that time free from the destructive effects that wild turkeys are causing to the forest ecosystem and the future abundance of the oak species in Maine.

Wild turkey websiteIn what ways do wild turkeys affect the future abundance of oak trees?

  1. Acorns are a primary food source of wild turkeys and many other species of wild birds and animals.
  2. Wild turkeys generally feed in flocks of a dozen to several dozen birds. When feeding on acorns they scratch the leaf litter down to bare ground, leaving no acorns on the ground.
  3. Complete removal of the acorn crop leaves few, if any, acorns available for the blue  jays which are prime movers of acorns away from the oak trees. Blue  jays can carry two acorns as many as several kilometers and bury them about an inch below the ground where they can sprout. Red oak acorns will not sprout until the following spring whereas white oak acorns will sprout within a day or two after falling to the ground. Without the immediate planting of white oak acorns by a blue jay there would be little, if any, white oak regeneration.
  4. Heavy feeding of acorns by wild turkeys will reduce the food supply for blue jays, which will eventually reduce the population of Blue jay jays. Fewer acorns means fewer blue jays which means fewer oak trees in the future.
  5. The feeding pattern of wild turkeys results in patches of bare ground which are prime sites for the establishment of invasive plant species including Japanese barberry, Amur and Japanese honeysuckle, Asiatic bittersweet, Common and Asiatic bittersweet and Autumn olive. Once these invasives become established they can destroy the site for the establishment of valuable timber species. It seems more than just a coincidence that the proliferation of invasive species in parts of Maine is coincidental with the establishment of wild turkeys.
  6. Many species of wild birds and animals use acorns as a food source. The reduction in numbers of acorns will directly reduce the population of the acorn feeding species which include chipmunk, gray squirrel, red squirrel, flying squirrel, deer mouse, white footed mouse, vole, red fox, black bear, fisher, skunk and white-tailed deer. The reduction in mice will reduce the food supply of foxes, hawks and owls.
  7. Acorns are an important food source for white-tailed deer and bear in the oak regions of Maine, especially in the fall when they need a high fat food before winter. Deer will feed on acorns by pawing through a foot or more of snow in early winter.
  8. The oaks, both red and white, are very valuable species for the forest industry. Red oaks, being the more common, are used for veneer, furniture, flooring, pulpwood and firewood. White oaks, while limited to a small range, are very valuable for ship building and flooring. White oak formerly furnished the planking for sailing ships, which reduced the availability of white oak near the coast.

The only friends of the wild turkeys appear to be the IFW biologists who introduced them and the turkey hunters who want another game source. Few, if any, landowners are in favor of large populations of wild turkeys. At a legislative hearing on a turkey hunting bill in 2013 a procession of orchardists, crop farmers, dairy farmers, blue berry growers and foresters testified strongly that wild turkeys are costing them heavily in lost profits. The only proponent was the IFW biologist!

Serious research needs to be done soon to evaluate the effects that large populations of wild turkeys will have on the future abundance of oaks in Maine. Tomorrow’s oak forest depends on the abundance of acorns NOW! LATER could be TOO LATE!