CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - As West Virginia transitions from winter to spring, an odd sound begins to echo through the woods.
From the first peek of dawn each day until the last vestiges of daylight disappear, it can be heard. High-pitched yet throaty, steady yet staccato, the distinctive gobble of a tom turkey is a sure-fire sign that the hills are shedding their drab gray coats and donning fresh vestments of springtime green.
Turkeys have lived in the Mountain State for millennia. They were here 11,000 years ago when the first Paleo-Indians migrated into the region, and they in all likelihood will be here for tens of thousands of years to come.
It’s difficult to believe, but West Virginia once almost lost its turkeys.
Fewer than 100 years ago, the state’s wild flocks had all but been exterminated, and until the 1960s turkeys could be found in only a relative handful of counties.
“In 1923, the total reported turkey kill in the entire state was only 106 birds,” said Curtis Taylor, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. “By comparison, last year the combined total for the spring and fall harvests was 12,161.”
The turnabout didn’t just happen. In fact, it took more than half a century’s worth of governmental intervention, bad science, trial-and-error science and good science to restore thriving populations to all of the state’s 55 counties.
The upshot is that today we find turkeys in pretty much all the places the state’s early settlers found them.
“The earliest account is of a 1671 (exploration) party that crossed Potts and Peters mountains (in what is now Monroe County) and killed turkeys along the way,” Taylor said. “Another account, of a 1750 expedition down the Ohio River, said the party saw lots of turkeys.
“In fact, early accounts seem to indicate that turkeys were most abundant along rivers. One from the early 1800s said turkeys were easy to find in the Kanawha Valley. Another, from 1822, said turkeys were ‘very abundant’ in the Wheeling area.”
The abundance didn’t last. People who settled the state hunted turkeys to put meat on the table. Professional hunters killed untold thousands more and sold them in markets. Finally, an unchecked timber boom took away most of the state’s turkey habitat.
“By 1909 (naturalist) Maurice Brooks wrote that turkeys were scarce throughout most of the state,” Taylor said. “Market hunting had been outlawed in 1903, but the logging boom was going strong. By 1922 most of the state had been cut over, and wild turkeys were in very limited numbers. Those were the lean years.”
By then, turkeys were found only in areas so remote or rugged they had yet to be logged.
Taylor said they disappeared from McDowell, Logan, Lincoln, Mingo and Wayne counties by the early 1920s. “By the 1940s, they didn’t exist in Boone, Wyoming and Putnam, and they were extremely scarce even in Greenbrier, Monroe and Pocahontas,” he added.
Curiously, turkeys never completely disappeared from Kanawha, Fayette, Raleigh and Summers counties, mainly because the walls of the New River Gorge and upper Kanawha Valley were so rugged hardly anyone dared to venture there.