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Blane Klemek column: Wild turkeys are abundant in Minnesota

It's turkey time in Minnesota. Thousands of hunters are taking to the woods once again to participate in a pastime that many call an addiction. And by the time many of you have read these words, yours truly will have also participated in his first pursuit of this revered American woodland bird.

Actually, I won't be hunting at all; I'll be inside a blind with my young son who will be doing the hunting while I do the watching. Weeks ago I applied on his behalf for a special youth wild turkey hunt where "Teens Meet Toms."

Coordinated by the National Wild Turkey Federation and Minnesota DNR's Hunter Recruitment and Retention Program, the partnership works to introduce kids to turkey hunting by teaming them and their guardians with experienced turkey hunters hunting on private lands throughout Minnesota's bountiful turkey range.

My excitement for the hunt has been two years in the making. Since participating in releasing wild turkeys three winters ago in northern Clearwater County, I've found myself drawn more than ever to this exceptional bird. For example, just a short time ago on a warm April morning, I located a group of strutting and vocalizing gobblers less than a mile from one of the release sites.

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, while also growing on hens occasionally, 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 predators and fights with other turkeys.

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. 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 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.

Wild turkeys have been released throughout Minnesota for about 40 years. From the release of just 29 birds in the early 1970s in Houston County, the turkey population has grown to around 70,000 birds today. Population density is highest in the southeast, but good numbers exist in the central part of the state as well. Expansion of turkey range has steadily increased northward.

Some of this expansion has occurred with little help from wildlife managers. It seems that wild turkeys are rewriting the book on habitat requirements and are finding niches in places that only a few years ago were considered unsuitable. There have been wild turkey sightings as far north as Kittson County. 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. Native Americans hunted the turkey irregularly 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.

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 on the Missouri River said:

"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 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. Indeed, gobbling and strutting tom turkeys, appearing now in parts of northwestern Minnesota too, are in attendance to see and hear as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at