By Bob Eriksen, Regional Biologist, National Wild Turkey Federation -
From 1940 to 1970, wildlife managers learned an important lesson: Truly wild turkeys simply cannot be raised in captivity. Studies have shown that releasing pen-reared turkeys, whether as poults or adults, has largely been an unsuccessful method of establishing populations of these fine birds.
Today there are still areas where wild turkeys are not abundant. Occasionally, people purchase "wild turkeys" from game bird breeders and release them in these areas to get a population started. Many turkeys advertised as eastern wild turkeys by breeders are not truly eastern wild turkeys, but are the product of selectively breeding wild and domestic turkeys to look like eastern wild turkeys. They resemble wild turkeys, but their genetics and behavior are different, and are less adaptable to wild living.
Captive rearing of wild turkeys eliminates the important learned behaviors that wild turkey poults acquire from their mothers. Therefore, they are more susceptible to predation, less likely to breed successfully and far more likely to exhibit tame or even aggressive behavior toward humans than their wild counterparts.
Releasing pen-reared turkeys can have negative impacts on wild turkeys. Pen-reared wild turkeys are often raised with other game birds or domestic fowl. Turkeys raised with other fowl may be exposed to the diseases or parasites the other fowl typically carry, but do not get sick from because of medication in feed and water while in captivity. After release, the disease or parasites may prosper because the condition of the turkeys declines as they adjust to the wild and are no longer medicated. The disease or parasite may be transmitted to susceptible wild turkeys that the pen-reared turkeys associate with. Should the birds survive long enough to reproduce, their genetic background could have a negative impact on the wild turkey gene pool.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission allows people to possess pen-reared wild turkeys but does not allow release of the birds without a permit (Title 58, Section 137.2.). Release of pen-reared wild turkeys without a permit can result in fines. There are some good reasons to allow possession of pen-reared wild turkeys. They are valuable for educational exhibits (they look like wild turkeys but adapt better to life in a pen) and they are excellent table fare. Many wild turkey enthusiasts enjoy having the birds around. Even captive turkeys are colorful and fascinating to watch. Turkey hunters often keep pen-reared turkeys to study the birds' vocabulary and practice calling techniques. Our advice is this: enjoy pen-reared wild turkeys, but keep them confined. Advise others not to release pen-reared turkeys under any circumstances. You are not doing the birds or their wild counterparts any service by releasing pen-reared wild turkeys. Pen-reared wild turkeys - don't release them!