ATLANTA — For the Thanksgiving bird, the word in the wild is ‘trouble.’ There are hundreds of thousands of wild turkeys throughout the state – but biologists say their population is dropping sharply.
For decades, wild turkeys thrived mostly in rural Georgia. UGA biologist David Chamberlain said their decline spans the region.
"When you look across the past 20 years, the trend is down. It's precipitous in some areas more than others, but across the southeastern states, the trends are the same," Chamberlain said.
When the state Department of Natural Resources produced a video forecasting turkey season in 2015, a state turkey biologist was somewhat upbeat about the number of wild turkeys in Georgia.
But since then – Georgia has had to shorten its turkey hunting season and the number of turkeys hunters can take from the field known as bag limits.
That’s because Chamberlain said wild turkey populations have dropped by 16% across the country – with Georgia among the states leading the drop.
"We’re not producing as many birds as we did a few decades ago and yet the demand is at an all-time high. Turkey hunting is very popular," said Chamberlain, who is also a turkey hunter.
Wildlife has long conflicted with urban and suburban sprawl. The City of Atlanta has had to chase away flocks of Canadian geese from city water treatment facilities. In residential areas, deer are often spotted and sometimes inadvertently trapped among fences and homes. Wild turkeys, which can get a bit aggressive, have likewise had awkward encounters in areas dominated by folks higher on the food chain.
As cities spread, wild turkeys, like other wildlife, also find themselves sharing smaller spaces.
"We’re creating landscapes that are better predator habitat than they are turkey habitat," Chamberlain said, referring to linear landscapes such as roads, utility rights-of-way and urban trails.
Wild turkeys nearly died out completely early in the 20th century but made a comeback with the help of conservationists. Chamberlain said it’s still possible turkeys could make another comeback again in this century.