Few people are alive today who would remember when wild turkeys teetered on the edge of extinction after almost being eaten into oblivion. But how that fate was avoided represents what is considered by some to be the greatest conservation success story in American history.
Prior to the arrival of European colonists, there were believed to be about 10 million wild turkeys inhabiting nearly every corner of what is now the continental United States. The birds, found only in North America, were so common, in fact, that settlers who hunted them thought they'd never run out.
"Turkeys were plentiful; it seemed that there would be an endless supply," Tom Hughes, a wildlife biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation, told The Dodo. "That led to a lot of exploitation over the years, including completely unregulated hunting. It was always open season on turkeys, and there were no bag limits - no nothing."
Not surprisingly, given that mind-set, as the country grew and the population expanded westward throughout the 19th century, the iconic American birds began to disappear at an astonishing rate. Coupled with being hunted at every opportunity, turkeys' wild habitat in the previously untouched forests were cleared to make room for ranches and farmland, furthering their dramatic decline.