It has been more than a hundred years — some say two hundred years — since wild turkeys have been hunted on Long Island. That will change this Saturday when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation opens its first turkey season here.
The hunt is the result of more than ten years of work re-introducing the fowl to state lands throughout Suffolk County — mostly on the East End. This Saturday, Barcelona Neck in Sag Harbor will be among the properties included in the five day limited local season.
“We’re trying to open up a hunting opportunity that hasn’t been here for a hundred years or more,” said DEC spokeswoman Aphrodite Montalvo.
In the mid 1990s, the state began re-introducing the birds locally, capturing mating pairs upstate. About 75 birds were eventually brought to Long Island and distributed at three locations, including Northwest woods.
Local woods and fields were once filled with the birds, but their population disappeared with the clearing of trees for cordwood and lumber and the creation of farms as the East End population grew. Express outdoors columnist Al Daniels, who grew up in East Hampton, knows of no one who had ever hunted wild turkeys here, but remembers hearing of them being on Gardiner’s Island.
The animals have been a common site throughout the area in the past five or six years, and The Sag Harbor Express started a Wild Turkey Watch feature when they began showing up in people’s back yards. Hikers frequently see them along woodland trails and even golfers at the Sag Harbor Golf Course on Barcelona Neck come across them eating and pecking their way across fairways, a phenomena that started just a few years ago.
Sag Harbor’s George Speckenbach remembers being stopped in traffic on his way to East Hampton on Route 114 near Swamp Road two years ago watching flocks of wild turkeys crossing the road.
“There were five or six waves of them, about 15 or 20 birds in each wave, flying from the ground to trees across the road,” recalled Speckenbach. “And even in the woods there were probably a hundred more.”
The numbers have gotten large enough — DEC officials estimate there are more than 3,000 turkeys on Long Island — to hold a shoot, but officials have no number in mind they would like to get the population down to, or even how many birds they expect to be killed this first go around.
“We just don’t know how successful this will be,” said Montalvo, “or what to expect.”
To gather data, the DEC is asking hunters to bring the harvested birds to the Ridge Hunter Check Station.
As the DEC gains experience in the first season or two, “some changes may be made to expand or improve the opportunity in the future,” the DEC said in a release.
Wild turkeys differ from the Butterball cousins in several weighs, not the least of which they are leaner and — for diners — tougher and gamier. Their diet leans toward eating nuts, berries and bugs, rather that the grain feed farm raised birds are fed.
While Southampton Town-owned lands will not be available for hunting turkeys, several parcels owned by East Hampton Town will, including about 100 acres off Town Line Road, 100 acres around the East Hampton Airport and the Buckskill Preserve off Route 114. Other state lands open for turkey hunting include the West Tiana Cooperative Area, the Westhampton Management Area and the David Sarnoff Pine Barrens Preserve.
The local season ends on Wednesday, November 25, just in time for hunters to bag their Thanksgiving dinner. Hunters are limited to one bird this season, of either sex, and may use shotgun or archery equipment. The shooting hours are from sunrise to sunset.