So you’re getting ready for Thanksgiving, huh? Well are you going the supermarket route again this year? Epicurious.com did a taste test on six supermarket turkeys, comparing their flavor, texture and appearance and came up with this ranking (first to sixth): Fresh Bell & Evans, Fresh Eberly Organic Free-Range Turkey, Fresh Murray’s Natural Turkey, Fresh Plainville Turkey, Frozen Li’L Butterball and Fresh Empire Kosher Turkey.
Then of course you can avail yourself of fresh, fresh turkey and get over to Miloski’s Poultry Farm in Calverton (4418 Route 25; 631-727-0239) where there are some 4000 turkeys being grown for their special day, sold first-come-first-served. Or you can try North Sea Farm (1060 Noyac Road, Southampton; 631-283-0735) who will also be selling turkeys for that oh-so-American holiday.
Or … how about trying to bag your own honest to goodness, Long Island-grown, free-range wild turkey (and not the brown liquid kind, either)? It may be a tad more involved than heading to the supermarket or farm, but it is doable, thanks to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Turkey season on Long Island opens November 16 and closes November 20 this year, and you can take one — male or female — by shotgun or bow (there is a spring season, a youth season, and hunting throughout New York State, as well). But it isn’t quite as easy as going for a walk in the woods and chasing a gobbler around.
No, you’ll need a gun or bow and acumen with either, turkey calls, camouflage gear, a hunting license and more than a modicum of care and stealth … and that’s just to avoid the other hunters, never mind bag a gobbler for the table.
Prior to 1992, however, the only place you could find a turkey on Long island was in the aforementioned supermarkets, Miloski’s or North Sea Farms, but that all changed when Mark Lowery, then a wildlife biologist with the DEC (now a climate policy analyst with the DEC), orchestrated a program to capture eastern wild turkey in upstate New York and reintroduce them them to Long Island from whence they disappeared in the early 1900s.
About 80 turkeys were brought south and released at Hither Hills State Park in Montauk and South Haven County Park in Brookhaven. The Montauk turkeys seemed to have settled and remained in place (well, it is Montauk, so why not?), while the South Haven flock started migrating north, probably following the Carman’s River and now constitute the flocks that appear on the sides of the road (in non-hunting season, naturally) along William Floyd Parkway (the Brookhaven National Laboratory property) and in the Calverton area (the former Grumman property) and along the Peconic River watershed. This all led to the first Long Island turkey hunting season, which was held in 2009.
There are other flocks in Suffolk County, but biologists and game management people agree these are probably escapees from game farms — most likely descendants of Merriam’s turkeys, a transplant from the western US. Adult male Merriam’s are distinguished from the eastern wild turkey by nearly white feathers on the lower back and tail feather margins. Its size is comparable to the eastern turkey, but has a blacker appearance with blue, purple and bronze reflections. The bird was named in 1900 in honor of C. Hart Merriam, the first chief of the US Biological Survey.
Quintessential Long Island male turkeys (toms) sport a long beard of feathers, while females (hens) have a lighter coloration … a sort of rusty brown. Fully grown toms can stand about two-and-a-half feet tall and weigh between 18 and 25 pounds, while females tend to run half that. Toms will “gobble,” while hens will “cluck” or “yelp.” You can hear these vocalizations by going to the National Wild Turkey Foundation’s (NWTF) call page at nwtf.org/all_about_turkeys/calling_tips.html.
The DEC estimates there are a quarter-million turkeys statewide, but the Long Island population probably ranges around 3000 birds. If you simply enjoy looking at birds, the DEC can use your help in determining the Island’s turkey flock size. You can participate in the 2013 Winter Wild Turkey Flock Survey by downloading forms from www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/wintertkysurvey13.pdf.
If you want to give turkey hunting a try here are some rules you need to know. You will need a small game hunting license. A hunting license is available from the DEC. If you haven’t had a hunting license, you’ll have to take a Hunter’s Education Course. This is a 10-hour course and you must pass a 50-question test; there are home study courses available for a fee. You must be 12 or older to hunt in New York. Go to www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/92267.html for more information. You’ll also need a turkey permit (the turkey permit is an additional $10).
You may hunt with a bow or a shotgun (using shot no larger than #2 and no smaller than #8), but you may not take a turkey with a rifle or a handgun firing bullets, and — if you’re lucky enough to shoot one of these surprisingly smart birds — you must fill out the tag, which comes with your permit, and attach it to any turkey you shoot immediately.
There are some safety tips worth mentioning as well. Don’t stalk the turkeys; this is sit, wait, and call hunting (think Duck Dynasty, only for turkeys. Check out outdoordealhound.com, the NWTF’s shop for turkey calls). More than half of turkey hunting accidents happen when stalk hunting, because the prey the hunter is usually stalking ends up being another hunter.
As always, don’t shoot until you see the whites of their (oops, wrong holiday) … er, the entire turkey and can identify its sex. If you see another hunter, talk to them clearly, don’t move and never wave at them or use a turkey call to alert them. When calling, sit still with your back against a big tree, to hide you from turkeys … and other hunters.