On Thanksgiving morning our neighbors looked out their window and saw thirteen wild turkeys nonchalantly strutting through their yard, stopping occasionally to peck at some seeds or acorns that grabbed their attention. In ignorant bliss they gradually made their way down the trail into the State Forest, while millions of their domesticated relatives roasted in our ovens.
We had turkey for our dinner, though not wild bred and born; it lived its short life in a semi-free state, with a few others of its kind, not far from where we live. So even though we were not direct participants in its life and death, it still made our meal feel a little bit closer to the original Thanksgiving feasts. Southeastern Minnesota is the region of our state where the birds were reportedly seen by the early pioneers. They probably didn’t exist in great numbers, and they disappeared completely around 1900, due to over hunting and habitat loss.
For a number of years beginning in the 1920’s through the mid 1960’s sportsman’s groups attempted to raise and release wild turkeys. These birds didn’t have the ‘street smarts’ to survive in the wild and it wasn’t until adult wild turkeys from other states were trapped and transplanted to Minnesota that the population began to grow. The first successful reintroduction occurred in 1973, with birds released in the southeastern part of the State. Since then the birds have continued to flourish and expand their range, some with the help of DNR trapping and releases.
We started seeing the birds near our home in East Central Minnesota about 15 years ago and their numbers have
grown in that time, making them established residents. Even if we don’t see the birds themselves their large, distinctive three toed prints lets us know they’re around. It’s almost like finding fossilized dinosaur tracks.
In total, about 7 million wild turkeys live in the United States. A century ago there were only 30,000. They are found in 49 states, with the only exception being Alaska. Missouri has the most with more than 317,000. An estimated 70,000 wild turkeys live in Minnesota. Approximately 15% are killed by hunters each year, so the population continues to burgeon, so much so, that in some places the birds have actually become a nuisance,
As long as our winters don’t have extremely deep snow cover, these biggest members of the Phasianide family (grouse, pheasant, and ptarmigan) are able to eke out a living. Starvation is a possibility, as are predators, but by roosting high in the trees of the forest they are able to reduce their exposure to the latter. If they survive the winter, courtship will follow in the spring time.
The adult males are not much larger looking than the females and will weigh around 20 pounds, but they will look nearly twice as big when they are trying to impress a female in breeding condition. They puff out all their body feathers, spread their impressive three tone tail, and drop the primary wing feathers, so that they just barely drag on the ground. Then they perform a regal, but subdued pirouette to display all their finery. If the match is made, the hen will build a shallow ground nest and raise 10-15 young.
Wild turkeys do not look as though they were meant for speed or even flight, but their shape and size belies an amazing ability to run up to 25 mph in short bursts, and to fly 55 mph in short flights. They are cagey and secretive when they want to be, making them a formidable quarry for the hunter.
Be on the look out for single sex and some mixed sex flocks in mowed fields or along the edge of the road next to a woods. The birds often gather here to scavenge grit for their gizzards. If you would like to entice them into your yard spreading cracked corn or wild bird seed mix will help.
Wild turkeys are never going to win any beauty contests, but they are historic birds, adaptable and worthy of our admiration.
By Kate Crowley