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Talking turkey: Nature walk focuses on sometimes elusive prey

Christine Harkinson/The Sun
Long Bridge Park in Hainesport encompasses 115 acres of land and was the setting for the county parks system’s Turkey Talk and Walk program earlier this month.

The Burlington County Parks System hosted Turkey Talk and Walk at Long Bridge Park earlier this month, a nature program led by naturalist Gina DiMaio that is one of many offered by the county parks system.

“Turkeys are certainly one of our most grand birds,” DiMaio told program participants. “They’re very stunning. The turkey is a very strong game bird, but in 1977, the species was nearly extinct in New Jersey, which is crazy to think about because over the past couple of years, I’ve been seeing a lot more in my neighborhood or just in parks in general, so their populations have rebounded.”

According to the county website, Long Bridge Park encompasses 115 acres. With upland and lowland forests, a freshwater pond and wetlands, tidal marshland, the Rancocas Creek shoreline and meadows, visitors can hike, bike, fish and have picnics in a rustic, natural setting along the Rancocas Creek.

The park also includes two age-appropriate play areas and several picnic pavilions in a landscaped central trailhead area.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that November is Native American Heritage Month, and I think that’s really relevant to our topic today with turkeys because Native Americans domesticated and also hunted turkeys, so they definitely relied on them for food,” DiMaio explained.

“All along the Rancocas Creek were settlements of Lenni Lenape and there was quite a major settlement in Rancocas State Park.”

Before the 1960s, wild turkeys were not as widespread in the U.S., according to ny.audubon.org. They inhabited fewer states and were not found in the western part of the country. Populations were abundant until the mid-1800s, when European colonists cleared forest land for agriculture, development and railroad construction.

The rapid loss of forest habitat – coupled with unregulated hunting – led to steep declines, and turkey populations plummeted to their lowest by the 1930s and 40s.

Several state wildlife agencies made the first attempts at restoring turkey populations. It took several decades of trying various restoration techniques, but finally, in the 1950s, wildlife biologists utilized cannon nets to capture wild turkeys and relocate them to areas they once populated.

By the 1970s wild turkey populations had increased dramatically, so much so that hunting resumed in some areas. Wild turkeys now occupy 49 states (all but Alaska), parts of Mexico and southern Canada.

But on a clear and crisp fall morning, county residents at the Talk and Walk looked for wild turkeys and learned about their behaviors, biology and reintroduction into New Jersey.

“Wild turkey, even though they were once nearly extinct in our state, are a symbol of strength and their rebounding populations are a conservation success story,” DiMaio noted.

“They can teach us about the resilience of nature.”

According to the American Bird Conservancy, wild turkeys have bronze, gold and green feathers and are accented by colorful skin ornamentation and spurred legs. They’re also fast runners and strong short-distance flyers, with excellent vision and an intelligent, wary nature that makes them an elusive quarry.

“In preparing for this walk, multiple sources were just saying how they (wild turkeys) are a conservation success story,” DiMaio observed. “I think that kind of symbolizes their strength, and if turkeys responded so well to different management practices and us taking care of their habitat, that gives hope for other things that are struggling.

“If we can do the right things and pursue the right methods, then hopefully other things that are struggling in nature will do well also.”

For future county parks events, visit www.co.burlington.nj.us.

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