Why people may be releasing turkeys into the wilds of New Brunswick

Turkeys likely raised in captivity are showing up in various backyards and some suspect it is no accident.

'They are almost certainly birds that are being released into the wild by people'

Some New Brunswickers are starting to suspect that someone is releasing captive exotic turkeys into the province's forests. (Joe MacDonald/CBC)

The four bird feeders in Mary de la Valette's yard are more likely to be emptied by red squirrels and a lingering herd of whitetail deer than by chickadees and grosbeaks.

But since October, some out-of-place birds have taken advantage of the free food. 

Two turkeys showed up suddenly, and de la Valette is certain they're not wild.

They come when she calls them, and appear to depend on the handouts, making the same circuit to nine different homes in Porters Cove, just outside Boiestown.

She suspects someone released them into the wild for one reason. 

"Because they want to start a hunting season," she said.

Mary de la Valette suspects captive turkeys have been released into the wild around the province in hopes of sparking a turkey hunt. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

She's convinced someone is attempting to artificially inflate the number of actual wild turkeys in the province to increase the likelihood of a long-debated hunt. 

Experts say she's not wrong. 

Talking turkey 

For more than a year now, naturalist Jim Wilson has been working with the New Brunswick Museum to study the origins of the turkeys showing up in New Brunswick. 

While some of the birds are coming from a wild population in Maine, he says, many appear to be deliberately released into the wild. The prospects for those turkeys aren't good.

"They are almost certainly birds that are being released into the wild by people — well-meaning people, maybe hunters, maybe people who like the thought of releasing the birds and having them around," said Wilson.

"But the lady in Boiestown, as I understand it, makes quite a good point that these birds are doomed to suffer a lingering demise eventually."

Turkeys likely raised in captivity are showing up in various backyards and some suspect it is no accident. 0:59

Wilson has been researching wild turkey populations in Maine, where there is an annual hunt.

He said similar tactics were used when trying to increase the turkey population there. People attempted to release captive birds in northern parts of the state to increase their numbers and expand their territory.

But those birds would die off from harsh elements, predation and lack of food. 

However, wild turkeys captured in the southern part of the state, then released a few hundred kilometres north, did survive and reproduce. That eventually led to the statewide population that exists today.

"So there are now turkeys in the wild surviving, right up to the New Brunswick border," said Wilson.  

Mary de la Valette says the turkeys that have been feeding in her yard are almost tame and come when called. She suspects someone released them into the wild illegally. (Submitted by Mary de la Valette)

Wilson said there are wild turkey populations in the hundreds living in Carleton County and Charlotte County that have come from across the border.

But he suspects turkeys living in other parts of the province have been released into the wild by humans.  

And even turkey populations that haven't been directly introduced by people into the wild appear to rely on humans for survival.

"They are much better off if they're trying to live in an area where there is agriculture," Wilson said. "So their success is tied to agricultural areas, or tied to areas at least where there is human habitation."

Jim Wilson, a naturalist, said it's pretty easy to find wild turkeys in the province if you know where to look. (Submitted by Jim Wilson)

He suspects birds that have crossed into New Brunswick from Maine likely followed power transmission line paths, or pipelines — areas that are rich in grasses and shrubbery and kept clear by human intervention. 

Breaking the law 

The release of "captive exotic" turkeys into the provincial wilderness is against the law according the New Brunswick Fish and Wildlife Act.

But when asked if people caught releasing captive turkeys into the wild would be prosecuted or charged, Mike Holland, the new minister of resource development, would not offer up a specific response.

"If we have rules in place, and you are found to be in violation of them, you should be charged," said Holland. "I will not speak to the specifics of any on-going situation or any file related to anything specific." 

These two turkeys showed up near Boistown in October. Experts belive there is a wild turkey population on the New Brunswick-Maine border, but many in the province's interior are likely turkeys that were raised and released by humans. (Submitted by Mary de la Valette)

Holland is the founder of the Canadian Wild Turkey Federation and has been advocating for a New Brunswick turkey hunt for years, prior to getting into government.

In 2017, he called it "ridiculous" that the province doesn't have a turkey hunt. 

Now as the minister in charge of wildlife with the Higgs government, Holland said he's committed to putting a management strategy for the bird into place.

"You've got all sorts of conversations, talking over a picket fence, but let's get science and data," said Holland. "Let's get involved in a management strategy so we can actually have an idea about what we have in the woods ... what the populations are like." 

Mike Holland has been advocating for a New Brunswick turkey hunt for years. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Holland makes no bones about his desire for a turkey hunt. Although he hunts "anything I can buy a tag for," he said turkey hunting is one of his favourite pastimes, having previously hunted the birds in Ontario, Maine and Vermont. 

He compares turkey hunting to moose hunting, saying it's about calling and drawing in the animal, as opposed to stalking it. 

His plan for collecting turkey data has the approval of Wilson. 

"I'm glad to see the minister taking the approach he is," said Wilson. "Because if he's thinking of doing something of a hunting season, he's going to order an inventory. And we'll get how many turkeys are around."

About the Author

Shane Fowler

Reporter

Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.