By Wesley Harris
The sight of wild turkeys across the hills of north Louisiana reflects changes in our ecosystem over the past century. The big bird Benjamin Franklin wanted to designate as our national symbol has made a big comeback.
Prior to 1880, as many as one million wild turkeys inhabited Louisiana. However, by the turn of the century, the state’s turkey population had tumbled. Timber production and unrestricted hunting played roles in the state’s declining wild turkey numbers. By 1946, fewer than 1,500 turkeys populated Louisiana. With the initiation of a restoration program in 1962, Louisiana’s wild turkey population has grown slowly to an estimated 80,000 birds. Sightings are no longer rare in Lincoln and adjacent parishes. In 2019 hunters took more turkeys next door in Claiborne than any other parish.
The resurgence of the turkey is not the only change to north Louisiana’s ecosystem. The bobwhite quail’s high-pitched whistle once delighted area farmers who rested on their porches after a hard day in the fields. The bobwhite has all but disappeared from north Louisiana despite efforts by the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission to reestablish the small bird. A number of factors may have contributed to its decline—an increase in the population of predators, the infiltration of fire ants into the area, and changes in habitat, such as the replacement of natural forest with pine plantations.
Likewise, the numbers of roadrunners, killdeer, and other birds—once common in our area—rarely make appearances. Other species like horned toads have disappeared from north Louisiana.
Those who grew up in the 1930s and 40s on the farms of Lincoln Parish rarely saw deer. Much of the area was sparsely forested compared to today’s terrain—the red clay hills were planted with cotton and food crops. The habitat to maintain significant numbers of deer did not exist. Hard to believe today, with our woods on the verge of overpopulation with deer.
Twenty years ago, who would have imagined frequent sightings of black bears in north central Louisiana? While Louisiana bear habitat is centered in the northeastern part of the state, amorous bears looking for mates occasionally wander into the area from the east or down from Arkansas. Wildlife management practices have brought the bear population up. Elimination of certain pesticides has brought a phenomenal surge in the numbers of birds of prey in our area. A sighting of a bald eagle or hawk is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
While our area is teeming with squirrels, they aren’t the same ones hunted by our fathers and grandfathers. The little gray squirrel has all but replaced the larger, reddish fox squirrel that dominated the area in decades past. The fox squirrel is still around but in much smaller numbers. Again, changes in habitat seem to be the cause.
The casual observer would be unlikely to detect the subtle modifications transpiring over decades within local wildlife species. Whether these shifts are due to man’s manipulation of the environment or the forces of nature, the changes are occurring. Either way, wildlife abounds in Lincoln Parish and the surrounding area.