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Wild turkeys abundant in Minnesota

Arthur Cleveland Bent, who wrote a 21-volume series about North American birds, was considered one of America's prominent ornithologists.

I feel lucky to have acquired several copies of his books about avian life histories from retired University of North Dakota professor of mammalogy, Dr. Robert Seabloom. Over the years I have frequently referred to these important volumes, first published in 1932 as Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 162.

Life Histories of North American Gallinaceous Birds is one of my favorites. This volume includes quail, grouse, prairie chicken, doves, turkeys and more. Additionally, several subspecies are treated with, as the author writes, " full a life history as possible..." Indeed, Mr. Bent was a tireless researcher who produced exhaustive works replete with not only his own immense knowledge of avian natural history, but, as well, backed by insights and anecdotal accounts from a host of those others observing said species; some of who recorded their observations as long as 300 years ago.

Of the eastern wild turkey, Melagris gallapavo silvestris, he begins by writing, "When the noble red man roamed and hunted unrestrained throughout the virgin forests of eastern North America, this magnificent bird, the wild turkey, another noble native of America, clad in a feathered armor of glistening bronze, also enjoyed the freedom of the forests from Maine to Ontario, southward and westward." "But," he continues, "the coming of the white man to our shores spelled the beginning of the end for both of these picturesque Americans".

Turkeys were hunted extensively when the first Europeans arrived in North America. Native Americans hunted the turkey only occasionally and 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.

Today, wild turkeys -- fleet of foot, powerful fliers, and exceedingly wary -- are abundant throughout many regions of North America. 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 subspecies (there are five in North America) wild turkeys can attain weights of well over 20 pounds and body lengths of up to four feet.

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 -- also growing on hens sometimes -- are much longer on gobblers, especially older birds. Thorn-like growths called spurs, which grow 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.

Black-tipped, iridescent body feathers give the gobbler a darker appearance than female birds. 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 unique purpose. 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 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 all through Minnesota over the past 25 years. From the release of only a few birds in the early 1970s, the turkey population has grown to over 30,000 birds today. Population density is highest in the southeast, but good numbers exist in the central part of the state as well.

Expansion of wild turkeys has steadily increased northward. Some of this expansion has occurred on its own and with help from DNR wildlife managers and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Turkey releases are now occurring in suitable habitat throughout northwestern Minnesota. 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.

Thanks to ambitious efforts to re-establish turkeys throughout their historic range and, in some cases, places they have never been, the wild turkey is abundant in Minnesota. So abundant that hunting seasons are held in both the spring and the fall. And though Bent wrote that the forests of colonial America "... disappeared before the white man's ax" [and] "his crude firearms waged warfare on the native game..." wild turkeys are a part of Minnesota's forests once again as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.