Outdoors column: Wild turkeys are a Minnesota success story
I've been spending some time in the "turkey woods" recently. Scouting for good hunting spots, observing and listening to the Northland's variety and chorus of springtime wildlife, and simply savoring the great outdoors far away from the not-so-great indoors.
On one particularly interesting evening, I watched a group of four juvenile male turkeys — called "jakes" — strutting and displaying with four hens in the middle of a 30-acre hay field. Surrounded by dense hardwoods with a few scattered mature red pine and white pine trees here and there, the turkeys were soon joined by 14 deer.
As the sun began to set and no longer could be seen above the trees, the hens led the group to the safety of the timber. I anticipated this all along, knowing of course that wild turkeys roost in trees at nighttime.
On my side of the field, but in the forest, was a group of a dozen or so enormous red pine trees with one lone white pine tree in the midst of the group. I had actually wondered when I walked by the trees if turkeys use the trees for roosting.
Watching the assembly of eight turkeys slowly making their way across the field toward those very trees confirmed my suspicions — that they indeed were heading to those trees to fly up and roost for the night.
The four hens led the way across the field, feeding as they walked, while the four jakes continued to try and impress the lady birds. Comical as it was, and no matter how much the four suitors displayed and fanned their tails and strutted their "stuff," the hens' intent seemed far removed from the jakes' pursuit and true desires.
Soon the eight birds were in the forest and walking slowly on a high ridge toward the towering pines. And upon reaching the trees I was both surprised and not surprised when, one-by-one, the birds flew up into various stout limbs of individual red pine trees.
Interestingly, the four jakes roosted in two different trees — two birds each — while the hens roosted together in one tree.
And later on, with a full yellow moon rising in the east, I walked back to the car and passed quietly below the roosting wild turkeys.
Wild turkeys, fleet of foot, powerful fliers, and exceedingly wary, are abundant throughout many regions of North America, including right here in northwestern Minnesota — Becker, Hubbard, Clearwater, Polk, and Beltrami counties.
Turkeys have also gained a strong foothold in parts of Norman, Mahnomen, Kittson, Red Lake, Pennington, Marshall, Roseau, and even Lake of the Woods counties.
Toms, or gobblers as they are also called, are the mature males (greater than a year old) of the species and grow much larger than hens. 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 an impressive 50 to 60 inches.
The wattles on the throats of mature male birds are colored brilliant red and blue. Long, hair-like tufts of feathers called "beards," while also occasionally growing on hens, are much longer on males, especially on older toms.
Thorn-like growths, called "spurs," growing on the backs of toms' 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, especially during the spring mating season.
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 called. 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 loud gobbling and resonant drumming vocalizations and sounds — serve a purpose, of course.
During the spring breeding season, toms 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 grassy openings in the forest, farm fields and field edges, and along trails.
Wild turkeys, which are related to ruffed grouse, prairie chickens, and ring-necked pheasants, have been released in parts of Minnesota since the 1970s through an ambitious capture and release program. The last release occurred in northwestern Minnesota in 2008, which concluded the program for good.
From the initial and subsequent releases of wild caught birds, the wild turkey population in Minnesota has grown to over 70,000 birds today. Population density is highest in the southeast part of the state, but good numbers exist elsewhere, including in the northwest and northeast. As well, natural expansion of wild turkey range has steadily increased northward just as it has with other wild birds such as northern cardinals.
Yet thanks to ambitious efforts to re-establish wild turkeys throughout their historic range and, in some cases, places they may never have been, wild turkeys are abundant in much of Minnesota. The native wild turkey is at home here in northern Minnesota, sharing habitat with other native species, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.