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Wild turkey a success story in Minnesota

Wild turkeys in Minnesota. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS1 / 2
Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek2 / 2

"For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. He is besides, tho' a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."

These words, written by none other than Benjamin Franklin, dramatically discloses his affection for a special bird that he believed should have been given the honor of young America's national symbol rather than the bald eagle. Though it's debatable about whether or not Congress actually considered the wild turkey, it is often written that the bald eagle, our national symbol, won out by just one vote.

Arthur Cleveland Bent, who wrote about the wild turkey in his Life Histories of North American Gallinaceous Birds, "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".

As they are today, wild turkeys were hunted extensively when the first Europeans arrived in North America. Native Americans hunted turkeys 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 much of United States. 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 all) wild turkeys can attain weights of up to 25 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 trapped and released throughout much of Minnesota, though the last release occurred in northwestern Minnesota in 2008. From the release of only a few birds in the 1960s, the turkey population has grown to an estimated 70,000 birds today. In actuality the number is probably closer to 80,000 if not even higher. And while the wild turkey population density is highest in southeastern Minneota, turkeys are extremely abundant in the central part of the state and are becoming much more common in the northwest, too. In fact, wild turkeys are now common in some parts of the Range and have even been observed up the North Shore.

Indeed, expansion of wild turkeys has steadily increased northward. Some of this expansion has occurred on its own and with help from DNR and National Wild Turkey Federation. 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.

Yours truly was involved in one of the last known wild turkey releases in 2008. Twenty wild-caught birds that were captured in both southeast Minnesota and in Wisconsin were released northwest of Bagley. Another 16 were released east of Clearbrook. Other bird were released further northwest, and today wild turkeys are common in parts of Polk, Red Lake, Pennington, Marshall, and even Kittson County.

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 now abundant in most of Minnesota. So abundant that hunting seasons, soon to commence and beginning on April 18, are allowed everywhere in Minnesota that wild turkeys exist, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.