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Wild turkeys are abundant in Minnesota

A pair of wild turkeys walk along a roadside searching for food last week in southern Becker County. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

I was fortunate to have played a part in the first wild turkey releases in Clearwater County, Minn. During the winter of 2008 in a collaborative effort between National Wild Turkey Federation and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, including Wisconsin DNR, I helped release 36 adult wild turkeys at two different private land locations in the county — northwest of Bagley and east of Clearbrook. Each of the sites was carefully selected based on the areas’ unique habitat blend of agriculture and mixed coniferous and deciduous woodlands.

My most memorable experience was when I held in my arms the largest of the eastern subspecies of wild turkeys that we released — a giant tom that weighed 25 pounds and came from Wisconsin. The bird didn’t struggle, he didn’t fight me, but he looked at me. His penetrating beady eyes seemed to suggest that being held (or likely, being caught!) was as undignified an experience that a wild turkey should ever have to endure.

Moments later as I crouched to the ground and lightly let his feet touch the ground and quickly let go of him, the huge gobbler immediately flushed in a thunderous explosion of beating wings. He was aloft so suddenly that it caught me off guard — it simply hadn’t occurred to me that such a large bird could become airborne so swiftly.

Arthur Cleveland Bent, who wrote a 21-volume series about North American birds, is considered one of America’s prominent ornithologists. In his Life Histories of North American Gallinaceous Birds, the author writes of the eastern wild turkey, Melagris gallapavo silvestris, “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 continued, “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 throughout much of Minnesota over the past three decades. From the release of only a few birds in the 1960s, the wild turkey population has grown to well over 60,000 birds today (2006 estimate). Population density is highest in southeastern Minnesota, but good numbers exist in the central and northwestern parts of the state as well.

Indeed, thanks to ambitious efforts to re-establish turkeys throughout their historic range, and, in some cases, places they have never been, wild turkeys are abundant in Minnesota. So abundant that hunting seasons are held in both the spring and the fall.  And though Mr. 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 and fields once again as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at