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IN 2019, I BEGAN A QUEST to raise awareness to wild turkey conservation. The goal was to use photojournalism to show the story of wild turkeys in Texas and around America. I believe that as turkeys go, so does the health of the forest.
If we get forests right for turkeys, everything else benefits.
I photographed Eastern turkeys in the Pineywoods of East Texas, Florida’s Osceola, Gould’s in Arizona, Merriam’s in Colorado, and Rio Grandes in numerous locations.
This journey was epic, challenging, and fun. But most of all, it was revealing.
The very fact that wild turkeys were down to 1.5 million birds in 1973 and here we are 50 years later with around 6.7 million is an incredible testament to conservation.
The National Wild Turkey Federation was founded that year and has been a force for positive change on behalf of turkeys, and to this day serves as a point of fundraising, expertise, and motivation for turkey and forest health projects. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is doing a great job managing turkeys and bringing Eastern turkeys back.
But there are problems with turkeys in America.
In New York for example, there has been a large decline in birds. Just across the border from me in Louisiana, a similar change in turkey numbers has occurred.
Other challenges, including development, are challenging not only to these great birds but other wildlife. I got to see that firsthand while traveling from the eastern seaboard to the Sky Islands of Arizona.
This journey clarified that wild turkey conservation is not only a worthy pursuit but a vital one.
Wild turkeys are animals that hunters can get behind and everyone in America can understand if educated. Forest health might be a big pill to swallow but ensuring the future of such an iconic, American bird has appeal.
During this process, I have done numerous presentations at schools, foster group homes, and for families and found that kids connect with turkeys too. And while the current crop of biologists, forestry workers, and other environmental professionals are doing a good job, what will the future hold?
I believe the charge to keep is not only to keep conserving turkeys but also to inspire young people to take up their cause. It’s great to have kids turkey calling contests and events like that, but it needs to go deeper.
It needs to touch the heart and go to a broader audience.
Maybe there can be others who see a photo of a turkey in a magazine, clip it out and place it in a scrapbook as I did when I was a kid. And maybe one day they will end up writing about their turkey conservation journey.
I’m no one special, but I have been able to do special things involving wild turkeys and my beloved wild sheep and it began in childhood with a scrapbook.
How much more powerful would it be if programs designed to inspire a love of wild turkeys and turkey conservation were to touch the hearts of children across the wild turkeys’ range?
There are programs in existence and kudos to them.
The following are some things I have done with kids involving turkeys over the last few years and they have been wildly successful, judging by the smiles on their faces and feedback from parents and educators.
Many states have license plate programs benefiting conservation. Texas has license plates featuring desert bighorns, horned lizards and largemouth bass and Florida has manatee plates.
A fun project for kids is to have students design a wild turkey license plate. They can either draw it or use a photo editing program. Have them use their imagination for any state, using any of the five varieties of wild turkeys.
Parents can email these designs to [email protected] We will post entries on our Higher Calling Wildlife social media and will have an annual contest via our social media platforms to determine the best design. The winning entry will receive a special wild turkey prize package.
If you have mounted turkeys, calling expertise, enough photos for a PowerPoint presentation, and a love of kids, try a turkey day at school.
My friend Cindy Childress is a teacher at Mauriceville Elementary in Southeast Texas. For the last two years, I have done presentations on wild turkeys and wild sheep at different times.
In November 2022, when everyone is thinking about turkey, I did a presentation called Beards & Bighorns that addressed wild sheep and wild turkeys.
I connected with NWTF and The Wild Sheep Foundation to give the kids turkey and sheep decals and let them learn about all wild turkeys, with a special emphasis on Eastern turkey restoration in their area.
You don’t have to be an expert or educator to do this. Teachers love to have people come to their classes and it’s always a hit with kids.
Easter egg hunts are a long-held American tradition that goes along with the global holiday.
In 2022, students at Little Cypress Christian Academy in Orange, TX, and Empowerment Church in Port Arthur, TX got a conservation twist with their egg hunts.
Through our Higher Calling Wildlife outreach, we put on turkey egg hunts.
The idea was to raise awareness of the presence of wild turkeys in East Texas and point school-aged kids to their conservation needs.
For each hunt, a dozen wooden eggs were painted to look like wild turkey eggs. Kids were instructed to turn those in to get a special prize package including caps, decals, and rulers, courtesy of NWTF.
Many other plastic eggs were set out with special wild turkey wooden challenge tokens and other items inside.
Our model is to partner with schools, churches, and other groups already doing an egg hunt, and to add to what they have. It blesses them by making their event bigger and it gives them a unique chance to captivate the imagination of kids regarding wild turkeys.
A full-body Rio Grande turkey mount was on display, and while handing out a prize package to a third grader who found one of the wooden turkey eggs, I heard something that blew me away.
This little third grader walked up and pointed at the turkey mount and said, ‘We need to help these birds and raise money for them. They’re cool.”
You can not only make a difference in turkey conservation but in the life of a child.
That’s a win-win and our world could use a whole lot more of those these days.
And we could use more kids thinking that wild turkeys and raising money for them is “cool”.
That is revolutionary.
The more people that realize we have Eastern turkeys in Texas, the more light we can shine on the great work done by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and National Wild Turkey Federation-Texas to restore them.
And the more we can have opportunities to discuss the need for quality habitat for turkeys that benefits everything from whitetails to woodpeckers.
So, through the Higher Calling Wildlife® outreach, we have created a new Eastern Turkey Aware challenge token. If you have photographed eastern turkeys in East Texas or Louisiana on a game camera or by traditional photography, email the photos with the county or parish the photo was taken to [email protected].
We will send you one of these cool wooden challenge tokens and a special edition Higher Calling Wildlife turkey decal.
Thanks to the National Wild Turkey Federation-Montgomery County Chapter for their help on this project.
Additionally, the Golden Crescent of Texas Chapter of NWTF are doing a special photo contest for kids in Calhoun, Dewitt, Goliad, Gonzalez, Jackson, Lavaca, Refugio, and Victoria Counties.
It’s a way to inspire them to get out in nature and use photography to promote wildlife conservation.
For more information visit www.gcnwtf.org/nwtfgc-photo-contest
—story by CHESTER MOORE