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Turkeys in Cades Cove


Article & photos by Nancy Brannon

November’s Bird of the Month is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s largest bird – the Wild Turkey. They are
found throughout the park, but visitors often see them in Cades Cove. The Eastern Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo) is an upland ground bird that thrives best in open landscapes where trees are interspersed with fields.

Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains offers good opportunities for wildlife viewing. Large numbers of white-tailed deer are frequently seen, and sightings of black bear, coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk, squirrels, and a variety of birds.

On a recent visit to the stables in Cades Cove, we found a group of wild turkeys resting in the woods. They were awakened and started moving off when the riders dismounted and began moving and making noise. But the birds didn’t seem too upset about the people visitors to the park. And we were able to get multiple photos of these “Thanksgiving” birds.

Not long after Congress had approved the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934, the assistant chief ranger sent a letter to the superintendent of the National Park Service which included a rough census of the park’s wildlife populations. According to the 1934 report, the new national park contained about 100 black bears. The number of white-tailed deer was estimated at only 18, and for wild turkey, the report put the entire flock at 315 birds.

Over the decades, a lot of Tennessee game species declined dramatically as settlers moved into the landscape. Between 1940 and1950, Tennessee conservation officials tried to restore the turkey population in the park by releasing birds raised in captivity, but few had the survival skills to survive in the wild.

In 1974 the Game and Fish Commission was reorganized into the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency and more attention was given to statewide turkey restoration, mainly by capturing and relocating wild birds. By the end of the 1980s, most counties in east Tennessee had sufficient turkeys to support hunting. Today, the turkey population in the Smokies is the highest it has been in 100 years.

If you can’t visit the park in person, you can visit the park on facebook at: Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the website:

Photos: the tuft of feathers that looks like a miniature horsetail dangling from its breast is called a “beard.” Year-old males have beards up to about five inches long, while toms three or more years old can have beards that are 10 inches or longer. About 5-10 percent of female turkeys may also sport short, thin beards

Simmons, Morgan. 2014. “Wildlife Comeback: Wild turkeys more plentiful now than in 100 years.” Knoxville News Sentinel. Nov.

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