As is often told, Benjamin Franklin, whether as a joke or not, proposed that the United States adopt the wild turkey as its national emblem.
It was argued that the bald eagle, a scavenger and thief by nature, should not be held to such high regard because of these and other unbecoming qualities. The wild turkey, he countered, possessed no such traits and, besides, was a bird that fellow countrymen could put to use. In other words, one can eat a turkey, but not an eagle.
The turkeys that many of us dine on today are the result of years of domestication and artificial selection that dates back to the 1400s. Though some domestic turkeys do indeed resemble their wild cousins, the overweight and dimwitted tame birds are long-removed from their wild roots. Truly wild, wild turkeys — fleet of foot, powerful fliers, and exceedingly wary — are abundant throughout many regions of North America, including most of Minnesota.
Toms, or gobblers, as they are also called, are the males of the species and grow larger than hens. Juvenile males are called jakes. Depending on the sub-species (there are five in North America) wild turkeys can attain weights of well over 20 pounds and body lengths of up to four feet. Here in Minnesota, it is the eastern subspecies of wild turkey that inhabits suitable forests and wooded river valleys.
Wingspans range from 50 to 60 inches. The wattles on the throats of gobblers are colored brilliant red and blue. Long, hair-like tufts of feathers, called beards, while also growing on hens, are much longer on gobblers, especially older birds. Thorn-like growths, called spurs, growing on the backs of gobblers’ legs, increase in length as a tom ages. The spurs are often used as weapons in defending themselves from would-be predators and in occasional skirmishes with turkey foes. B
lack-tipped, iridescent body feathers give the gobbler a darker appearance than the female bird. Hens’ feathers are buff-tipped, giving them an overall brown appearance. This difference is important, since it is the hen that incubates the eggs and cares for the young, or poults, as they are named. Cryptic coloration is needed to escape the notice of mammalian and avian predators.
The well-recognized display that a tom performs — the puffed-out feathers, the fanned-out tail and the gobbling vocalizations — serve a purpose, of course. During the spring breeding season, adult gobblers compete with other males for the attention of hens. Toms will establish “strutting zones” and will aggressively defend these areas from other toms. Though the wild turkey is a true woodland bird, during the mating season these displays are performed where they can be easily seen, such as forested openings, field edges and along trails.
Eastern wild turkeys have been released throughout Minnesota over the past 25 years. From the release of only a few birds in the early 1970s, the wild turkey population has grown to well over 30,000 birds today. Population density is highest in the southeast, but good numbers exist in the central and northwestern parts of the state as well.
Through natural expansion, as well as translocation efforts by natural resource professionals and conservation organizations such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, wild turkeys and wild turkey range have steadily marched northward. Wild turkeys are rewriting the book, so to speak, on habitat requirements and are finding niches in places that only a few years ago were considered unsuitable.
There are now wild turkey sightings as far north as Kittson County, including a turkey hunting permit area that includes all of northwestern Minnesota all the way to the Canadian border. Even so, basic habitat required for turkey survival is generally mature hardwood forests interspersed with both cropland and non-agricultural openings. Acorns are a favorite food, as are other nuts, berries, seeds, crops and insects.
Turkeys were hunted extensively when the first Europeans arrived in North America. American Indians hunted the turkey only occasionally, and they used the feathers for clothing and weapon adornment. To some tribes, it was taboo to kill a turkey, but to early settlers the turkey was an important food source.
From the book “Feathers from the Prairie,” a passage written by Alexander Henry traveling from his Pembina, N.D., fur post on July 21, 1806, to visit the Mandan Indians along the Missouri River, states: “One of the natives had a turkey-cock’s tail, great numbers of which they got from the Schians [Cheyennes]; and which serve them as fans; this was a new and fresh one, of beautiful hue. I gave him five rounds of ammunition for it, with which he appeared well satisfied, and left me, but soon returned with the ammunition, and demanded the tail.”
Obviously, the native trader had second thoughts and wanted the prized possession back.
Thanks to ambitious efforts to re-establish wild turkeys throughout their historic range and, in some cases, places they have never been, the wild turkey is plentiful once again in Minnesota — so numerous that hunting seasons are held in both the spring and the fall.
And consider this:
In 1978, the year that Minnesota sponsored its first-ever regulated wild turkey spring hunting season in the extreme southeast corner of the state, just 94 turkeys were harvested. Last spring, 2012, the statewide harvest, which includes all but the northeastern part of Minnesota where turkey hunting is not permitted, was 11,325 birds.
With the latter being the case, I would imagine that many more tables this past Thanksgiving Day were centered with a wild turkey instead of a pen-raised bird. Indeed, the wild turkey, an emblematic bird in its own right, is a true denizen of woodlands everywhere for us to observe and be thankful for as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.